In 2016 the federation of the three technical universities in The Netherlands was joined by Wageningen University. Since 3TU became 4TU, 4TU.Ethics is exploring the opportunity to welcome the Philosophy group (PHI) at Wageningen University in our center. At the time the spotlight was written, all parties involved are positive about the future involvement of PHI to our center. Therefore, it is time to introduce the group through the work of some of the members.
PHI focuses on ethical issues that arise in relation to the Wageningen mission, that is, to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life. This involves ethical questions concerning agriculture, food production, and animal, environmental and public health with a special emphasis on the ethical deliberation of science and technology; and with a special attention to bring philosophy towards a practical approach. We had the possibility to speak with five of their members, where we have learned what new areas and projects are they researching on, and what areas will be focusing in the future.
Animal Health: vaccination and the cities
Prof. Dr. Marcel Verweij is the chair at PHI group. Verweij specialises in public health and public policy and is an advisor to Zorginstituut Nederland that recommends the government about including new medical treatments in the health insurance. He is involved in projects such as the screening of donor blood to prevent infections, and he participates in public debates on childhood vaccination. At the moment, his work is concerned with the regulation of vaccinations, and the prevention of antibiotic resistance. The latter, he argues, will become a big problem on the global scale, which will raise new ethical issues regarding public health and animal welfare.
Verweij is also interested in health inequalities in social-economic groups; these inequalities can be related with how we create our social and built environment, as he argues: “The built environment is important for our health but also the way we organize how people buy their food in the supermarket, this is also a technology or “social-technology”. You can influence the people by changing the context of the choice. It will be easier to take one drink if it’s nearby. It does not limit your freedom but it steers you towards a particular choice. That is an important technique to steer, to guide the choices people are making. This is valid in many contexts, but especially in health context. This also raises ethical questions of manipulation.”
Genetic Breeding and the Anthropocene
Dr. Bernice Bovenkerk is an assistant professor at PHI. Bovenkerk focuses on animal domestication, moral status of animals, climate change ethics, biotechnology and deliberative democracy. She received her PhD from the University of Melbourne (Australia) on a dissertation titled “The Biotechnology Debate: Democracy in the face of intractable disagreement” where she analysed moral disagreement that exists in the debate on animal and plant biotechnology, and proposed political solutions and approaches for governments to deal with those politically, in particular how disagreements could be handled in a deliberative democracy.
Bovenkerk has recently finished her VENI project on the ethics of animal domestication. Two main questions appear in this research, as she explains: “How do we deal with objections that are raised against changing the genetic makeup of animals through genetic modification and selective breeding? I have focused on the case-study of pedigree dog breeding. There are not only medical or welfare problems, but also problems beyond welfare such as – Are we playing God? – Are we doing something unnatural? – Are we violating the integrity of the animals?”
She has just submitted a VIDI proposal on “animal ethics in the Anthropocene”, in which she examines how can we formulate an animal ethics for the Anthropocene that takes into account new insights about animal agency. This ethics should deal with the relationship between humans and wild, liminal, or domesticated animals. Technology plays an important role, since humans have to now question how they will design nature with new technologies; as Bovenkerk points out: “Since we are living in the Anthropocene, human-animal relations are changing. There are a lot of animals that cannot survive in their habitats, and extinction is happening; therefore, new questions appear such as – what sort of technology can we use to ameliorate this, and what are the moral implications to judge this technology? For example de-extinctions, like bringing back the Woolly Mammoth, or changing the genetic makeup of some species so that they can survive in other environments”. Following this research, Bovenkerk is for example focusing on the malaria mosquito’s case study with gene-drives and CRISPR/Cas9 technology, which makes it possible to modify the malaria parasite in mosquitoes. Questions arise such as: “Is it bad in the first place to get rid of mosquitoes? What does animal agency mean? What moral implications does it have if you take animal agency more seriously? How will this affect ecosystems?”.
Dr. Vincent Blok is an associate professor in sustainable entrepreneurship, business ethics and responsible innovation. Blok held various management functions in the health care sector, and he became director of the Louis Bolk Institute, a research institute in the field of sustainable farming, food and health. Blok focuses on philosophical and business ethical issues in responsible innovation, such as the meaning of innovation, and how should companies deal with ethical issues related to innovation.
Blok’s recent investigations focus on “the bio-based economy” and “biomimicry” which is understood as engineering inspired by nature. He affirms that: “Because it relies on nature it is said to be more ethical or more ecological, but this raises philosophical questions and we as philosophers can contribute to try to what extend they [the engineers] really can claim to be more ecological, or how they relate to it, or whether it’s just marketing”. He also argues that he is expanding his philosophical work to more empirical domains, for example, he is currently researching individual competences for sustainable development: “How are individuals able to make ethical decisions in complex situation like global warming? – Here we do quantitative studies in which we assess these competences with students for sustainable entrepreneurship with 400 respondents, such as personal values, self-assessment, qualitative studies on how they use it.”
He is responsible for 10 PhD and 3 postdocs in the field of responsible innovation, business ethics, and sustainable entrepreneurship. These projects focus on how moral issues play a role in decision making with regards to green technology and new start-up firms. 4TU.Ethics members will recognize his contribution to the 4TU.Ethics Graduate program, where he co-organizes a course on the Philosophy of Responsible Innovation.
Responsible Innovation in Food Industry
Teunis Brand is a PhD candidate in businesses ethics, supervised by Vincent Blok and Marcel Verweij. His project is about “the ethics of responsible innovation in the food industry”. Brand focuses on the question to what extent food companies are responsible for consumer health, and how they can address this with their innovation programme. Furthermore, he studies the dialogue between food companies, NGOs and other stakeholders about healthy food.
Brand explained the relation between technology, responsible innovation and food companies: “When you look specifically into the development of healthy food products then it seems for example very easy to decrease the amount of salt, sugar, fat, etc. But it’s not always that easy, there are very difficult technological challenges. For example, salt increases the shelf life of food products. When I started I thought it wouldn’t be problematic to decrease the salt or sugar levels, but it is technologically very challenging to, for example, keep a cookie crispy and tasty while at the same time reducing the sugar level. These are technological challenges that seem simple but they are not that simple.”
His current focus is on stakeholder engagement. Deliberation with stakeholders is often seen as a way to include social and ethical aspect in the innovation process. He argued that there are many difficulties with deliberation within the private sector, for example because competitors can take advantage of your knowledge if you are fully transparent about it. One of his main points is that the framework for responsible innovation in the context of science cannot simply be translated to the context of business, which is why he is working on the conceptualization of responsible innovation in business.
Ethics of Systems
Dr. Bart Gremmen is a full professor. He conducted his PhD in Philosophy of Science on how fundamental science can be useful to professionals in all kind of scientific or technical practices, especially for farmers. One of his main aims in research is to combine sustainable agriculture with urbanization processes: “We are building green houses inside parking spaces underground, where led lamps can give the energy, you don’t need outside sun, we can grow plants inside. That is a self-sufficient city.”
Furthermore, Gremmen studied models, and he came up with morals between farmers and scientists in a joined practice. He founded the center for “Methodological Ethics and Technology Assessment”. Now his main research evolves through “Ethics in Life Sciences” and he is now developing an “Ethics of systems”, as he argues: “I reach the point in ethics where I think that something is missing in agriculture that is an ethics of systems. For example in Holland we have a lot of animals in farms, and we have a lot of criticism from NGOs that animals are not well treated and the welfare is not good. Although I think that is true, for me is not the main ethical point. Of course, we need to take care of that abuse, but the main point for me is that the system itself is immoral, or has immoral parts. This is an enormous inconsistency in the system that you cannot change. We have a long list of all these immoral actions, which in one hand is effective because they give food, but are also immoral, and maybe with value-sensitive design we can change these systems. We are not used to talk about the ethics of systems; there is no literature about it.”
Overview of Key Publications
Blok V, Gremmen B, Wesselink R., (2016) Dealing with the wicked problem of sustainability: The role of individual virtuous competence. Business and Professional Ethics Journal
Blok V, Vincent, Gremmen B., (2016) Ecological innovation: Biomimicry as a new way of thinking and acting ecologically. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 29.2 : 203-217
Bovenkerk, B., & Nijland, H. J. (2017). The Pedigree Dog Breeding Debate in Ethics and Practice: Beyond Welfare Arguments. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 30(3), 387-412.
Bovenkerk, B., & Meijboom, F. L. (2013). Fish welfare in aquaculture: explicating the chain of interactions between science and ethics. Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics, 26(1), 41-61.
Kramer, K., Zaaijer, H. L., & Verweij, M. F. (2017). The precautionary principle and the tolerability of blood transfusion risks. The American Journal of Bioethics, 17(3), 32-43.
Verweij, M., Lambach, P., Ortiz, J. R., & Reis, A. (2016). Maternal immunisation: ethical issues. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 16(12), e310-e314.
Verweij, M. (2015). How (Not) to Argue for the Rule of Rescue. In Identified versus Statistical Victims. An Interdisciplinary Perspective. (pp. 137-149). Oxford University Press.