Distributive justice

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Overview

  1. To what extent can the synthetic vaccine developed in MycoSynVac be expected to address global inequalities between rich and poor?
  2. How can the marketing and terms of use for a MycoSynVac product influence the global distribution of access to that product?
  3. How can MycoSynVac address the fact that farmers with lower yields will have less incentive to use a MycoSynVac product?
  4. Do animal welfare concerns favor the use of a MycoSynVac product if it is available? And if so, does MycoSynVac have an ethical obligation to increase accessibility in light of those concerns?

1. To what extent can the synthetic vaccine developed in MycoSynVac be expected to address global inequalities between rich and poor?

The development of synthetic vaccines represents a new step in the application of technology to the agricultural sector (Lemmens, 2014). It has the potential to create a further split, within the agricultural sector, between regions and countries, with wealthier regions investing in and employing the new technology while less well-off regions cannot afford to do so. There is therefore a risk that MycoSynVac will contribute to existing global inequalities. Several different processes can bring about skewed adoption of new technologies. Clearly, economic factors remain an important reason why adoption rates may be slower in less well-off regions and among poorer farmers. In these regions, and for some farmers, it might be prohibitively expensive to adopt the new technologies that would otherwise increase efficiency. Some farmers may be “left behind” and become less and less competitive as new technologies are adopted by others. Another contributory factor may be farmers’ resistance to a new technology. In some cases, this happens because agricultural traditions do not favor the new technologies that are being handed down by researchers and industry. In others, a simple preference for tried and tested processes may be at work. Whatever the cause, it is possible that there will be lower adoption rates of a MycoSynVac product in some regions, especially those where traditional farming culture still has a strong hold on the agricultural sector and is culturally important.

Quick points

  • MycoSynVac should be aware that a new technology such as a vaccine can contribute to inequality through additional initial costs which leave some farmers without access to the potential efficiency gains
  • New technologies in the agricultural sector are perceived differently in different cultures, and MycoSynVac should seek to ensure that its products are not perceived as detrimental to traditional methods

2. How can the marketing and terms of use for a MycoSynVac product influence the global distribution of access to that product?

Efforts to lower the per-animal cost of a MycoSynVac vaccine can help to deliver the widest possible adoption of the vaccine in less well-off regions, and thereby bring the greatest welfare benefits to humans and animals. This can be contrasted with other strategies for bringing a product to market that involve higher per-animal costs while generating a similar or equivalent profit for the developer.

Access can also be improved through sensitivity to the differing situations that farmers are facing in different regions. MycoSynVac should remain aware of the perspective of traditional farming cultures in different regions, and should seek to engage these communities in the process of implementation. In this way, MycoSynVac will come to be seen, not as a technology that has been mandated from above, in conflict with traditional practices, but rather as a supplement to, and improvement on, current techniques and practices. This might be achieved by involving local organizations and farmers in the marketing of the product. Lastly, MycoSynVac should make efforts to communicate especially with farmers who prefer tried-and-tested methods over new technologies in order to explain to them how a MycoSynVac product will not necessarily replace existing methods, but add to them.

Quick points

  • MycoSynVac should seek to market its product in a way that allows less well-off farmers to share in the efficiency gains, and in particular it should work to ensure that initial buy-in cost does not exclude some farmers
  • MycoSynVac should seek to engage local organizations and farmers in the process of bringing a potential vaccine to market in a way that is a benefit to current agricultural practices in a given region
  • MycoSynVac should look to engage farmers who are resistant to new technologies in order to communicate how a potential vaccine can supplement current practice and need not introduce a fundamental shift in practice

3. How can MycoSynVac address the fact that farmers with lower yields will have less incentive to use a MycoSynVac product?

Yield on investment in new technologies is variable across regions as a result of variable efficiencies of livestock production. In other words, in regions where the yield per-animal is lower, or where the survival rate of animals is low, either the cost of the vaccine has to be distributed across a lower yield, or there is a higher rate of lost investment when vaccinated animals die or are culled for reasons unrelated to the vaccine and its associated diseases. Thus, even in cases where the cost of investing in a new vaccine is not prohibitively high, farmers from some regions may have less incentive to invest in it because they are less likely to see a return on their investment.

There are several ways in which this problem can be addressed by the MycoSynVac project. While larger systemic changes are out of the hands of a research project like MycoSynVac, some steps can be taken to minimize differences in deployment rates across regions. These range from marketing and price-setting the product in a way that is sensitive to the differences in return on investment, to ensuring that a MycoSynVac product is not seen as a stand-alone addition for the farmer, but is instead seen as part of a range of technologies which can, in combination, increase the efficiency of the farmer’s production.

Quick points

  • Yields and efficiency of production are generally lower in some regions. MycoSynVac should be sensitive to this when bringing a potential vaccine to market
  • By encouraging the use of new technologies in general, MycoSynVac can help ensure a greater return on investment on a MycoSynVac product

4. Do animal welfare concerns favor the use of a MycoSynVac product if it is available? And if so, does MycoSynVac have an ethical obligation to increase accessibility in light of those concerns?

There is an obvious risk that lower uptake of synthetic vaccines in less well-off regions would create a cost to human welfare in these regions, as other regions will increase their efficiency and leave regions that do not employ the new technologies relatively worse off. However, given the potential for improvements to animal welfare through use of synthetic vaccines to treat serious disease in livestock, there is a risk that not using an available vaccine would impose an unethical cost to animal welfare, independently of the cost of the vaccine. In essence, it can be argued that we should set some lower boundaries on the treatment of animals, independently of profitability. If a treatment becomes available which was not previously available, and which improves animal welfare significantly, there may be a case for raising minimum requirements in the treatment of animals to include this treatment, thereby making livestock production in countries where the treatment is not economically viable ethically unacceptable. In these cases, animal welfare concerns would speak in favour of the use of a MycoSynVac product.

Whether MycoSynVac has an ethical obligation to ensure there is wide access to a potential vaccine depends on two things: the specification of any potential vaccine, and what is meant by “access”. But assuming that an effective vaccine is developed, MycoSynVac has at least a prima facie responsibility to make the vaccine available so that animal welfare can be improved. In this case, animal welfare will be directly impacted by the adoption rate of the product, and for this reason MycoSynVac should look to ensure that adoption rates are as high as possible. There should be a special focus on increasing adoption rates in less well-off regions, where adoption rates will also have the biggest impact on human welfare, as the adoption of new technologies in these regions is vital if agriculture is to remain competitive. Plainly, there are many ways to extend the real accessibility of a new technology such as MycoSynVac. While pricing is always a central concern, steps to involve farmers in the process will probably also secure greater access to the product.

Quick points

  • If the MycoSynVac project is successful, animal welfare concerns will favor of the use of a MycoSynVac vaccine
  • MycoSynVac has an obligation to make a successful product available
  • MycoSynVac should seek to increase accessibility and adoption rates especially in less well-off regions, where adoption of a successful MycoSynVac vaccine would have the biggest impact on both animal and human welfare

 


References

Lemmens, P. (2014). Re-taking Care: Open Source Biotech in Light of the Need to Deproletarianize Agricultural Innovation. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 27(1), 127–152. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-013-9457-8