The Myth of Efficiency: Technology and Ethics in Industrial Food Production

Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 26 (1):231-256 (2013)
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Abstract

In this paper, we explore how the application of technological tools has reshaped food production systems in ways that foster large-scale outbreaks of foodborne illness. Outbreaks of foodborne illness have received increasing attention in recent years, resulting in a growing awareness of the negative impacts associated with industrial food production. These trends indicate a need to examine systemic causes of outbreaks and how they are being addressed. In this paper, we analyze outbreaks linked to ground beef and salad greens. These case studies are informed by personal interviews, site visits, and an extensive review of government documents and peer-reviewed literature. To explore these cases, we draw from actor-network theory and political economy to analyze the relationships between technological tools, the design of industrial production systems, and the emergence and spread of pathogenic bacteria. We also examine if current responses to outbreaks represent reflexive change. Lastly, we use the myth of Prometheus to discuss ethical issues regarding the use of technology in food production. Our findings indicate that current tools and systems were designed with a narrow focus on economic efficiency, while overlooking relationships with pathogenic bacteria and negative social impacts. In addition, we find that current responses to outbreaks do not represent reflexive change and a continued reliance on technological fixes to systemic problems may result in greater problems in the future. We argue that much can be learned from the myth of Prometheus. In particular, justice and reverence need to play a more significant role in guiding production decisions.

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