Ann Nunnelly 2015-12-22 23:39:50
Sustainability as an Issue of Corporate Social Responsibility Editor’s note: Ann Nunnelly captured first place in the 2015 Ag and Bio Ethics Essay Competition by submitting “an original work of up to 1,500 words on an ethics topic impacting the practice of professions related to agricultural and biological engineering, systems, or technology.” Open to undergraduate and graduate student members of ASABE and IBE, second place went to Victoria Garibay, Texas A&M University, for “Earth Ethics: An Analysis of Emissions Policy,” and third place was awarded to Richard Colley, III, Auburn University, for “Ethical Considerations of Hydraulic Fracturing in the United States.” The three finalists presented their papers at the ASABE Annual International Meeting in New Orleans last July. Since the Brundtland Commission coined and defined the term “sustainable development” in 1987, sustainability has become a buzzword for companies wishing to present themselves as fiscally, ecologically, and socially responsible. It is a marketing tool to reach a new age of consumers who want to feel good about the products and services they purchase in a world where energy and resources are limited. However, the sustainability of a company cannot be measured by its “green” advertising. The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of a company is determined instead by its core values and its decisions as a global citizen. The idea of CSR is complicated because it means very different things to different people. Therefore, in a general sense CSR is “the continuing commitment by business to contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the community and society at large” (“Corporate Social Responsibility”). To many, this means that businesses are accountable not only for the effect their activities have on the world today, but also their future impact—in other words, the sustainability of their practices. An increasing number of large companies are beginning to understand the value of a sound CSR strategy that fosters measurable action. In this way, acting in an economically, ecologically, and socially responsible manner is more than just the ethical duty of a company, but it is a practice that pays off considerably in the long run. As biological and agricultural engineers, we are entrusted in many ways with environmental and public health, safety, and welfare. Therefore, we must abide by a strict code of regulations enforced by organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, simply staying inside the lines does not necessarily mean we are practicing ethical behavior. Although most people may not readily associate biological and agricultural engineering with a substantial amount of ethical decision making, when approached from a sustainability standpoint more questions may arise concerning the integrity of our decisions and practices. For this reason, CSR can also be readily applied to agribusiness and the like. The Code of Ethics of Engineers found in the Constitution, Bylaws, and Rules of the ASABE states that “engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.” To abide by this code means to consider the present and future consequences of our practices on public safety, health, and welfare. In other words, this idea is intended to push the boundaries of agribusiness and bring into question sustainability as an ethical issue. In order to further examine this notion, let us take the practice of intensive monoculture. It is time to reassess unsustainable land use The global population is well over seven billion and growing. From 2012 to 2014, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that about 805 million people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment (“2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics”). The need for increased industrial agriculture to produce the necessary sustenance for the growing population is undeniable. However, it has also been proven that intensive monoculture rapidly degrades and eventually exhausts the soil. Because of this, as soils are rendered futile, forests must be clear-cut to make way for more agricultural land in order to continually produce the enormous amounts of food necessary to meet global demands. The Amazon basin has been experiencing this phenomenon for decades and in the process has lost over 763,000 square kilometers of rainforest in the past 20 years. That is an area two times the size of Germany! (Watts). The soils that support tropical rainforests are typically classified as oxisols. These are the most highly weathered soils and are defined by a thick, oxic horizon that has a very limited capacity to hold nutrient cations, rendering them very low in natural fertility and moderately acidic. These characteristics are not suitable for intensive agriculture (Brady and Weil, 112). Therefore, productivity quickly drops off after only a few years of production. Not to mention, such large-scale deforestation has costly ramifications, such as generating widespread erosion that results in water pollution from surface runoff, severe flooding, loss of biodiversity, the disruption of weather patterns, and the reduction of carbon sinks, which contributes to global climate change (Esposito). This cycle of intensive monoculture, soil depletion, and deforestation is clearly unsustainable. If we are currently struggling to feed seven billion with these methods, imagine the challenges the world will face in the century to come. The United Nations Population Division has projected that if current trends continue, there is an 80 percent chance that the global population in 2100 will fall between 9.6 and 12.3 billion (Kunzig). With this in mind, it is time to reassess unsustainable land use and begin developing large-scale agricultural solutions now that will play a crucial role in feeding the populations of the future. What are our options? As engineers we have an exciting opportunity to be creative in our work and explore innovative avenues for new developments in the field. If we are to follow the Code of Ethics of Engineers, we must also uphold the safety, health, and welfare of the current population and the generations to come. Therefore, instead of supporting the immediately productive, but ultimately unsustainable and destructive practice of intensive monoculture, it is our job to recognize the direction that these practices are taking us and propose productive, economically feasible, and ecologically viable alternatives that will reap benefits for the populations of the future. Intensive monoculture is only one example of a wide variety of ethical challenges that biological and agricultural engineers face. More issues will present themselves in the years to come as natural resources continue to become limited. In order to begin to solve these problems, we must keep in mind our responsibility as engineers and realize that to be ethical is an individual choice. However, the congregate of individual decisions can effect great change. Whether or not a company is successful in carrying out its CSR is determined by the individual behavior of its employees. The decisions of engineers play a pivotal role in that success. On the other hand, this is a challenge to engineers seeking employment to thoughtfully consider as a part of their employment matrix the CSR of the companies they may be working with in the future. It is up to each of us to determine how we can use our skills to ensure that the practices of the company we work for are providing for a more sustainable future. It is our ethical responsibility to put those skills to work. ASABE member Ann Nunnelly, Biosystems Engineering senior, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., USA, email@example.com, http://annnunnelley.weebly.com/.
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