Skip to main content Accessibility help

Bioethical analysis of biotechnologies: lessons from automatic milking systems (AMS) and bovine somatotrophin (bST)

  • K. M. Millar (a1) and T. B. Mepham (a1)


Technologies emerging from current bioengineering research areas may have a substantial impact on society and raise many ethical issues. Consequentially, there is a significant interest amongst public and private organisations to identify ethical issues, improve stakeholder participation, and develop frameworks and assessment procedures to aid decision-makers evaluate these complex issues. This paper explores a form of bioethical analysis that has been developed to aid decision-makers in the agricultural and food sectors. Two agricultural technologies will be used as case studies to examine the application of this form of bioethical analysis in technology assessment, viz automatic milking systems (AMS) and bovine somatotrophin (bST). The bioethical framework applied, the Ethical Matrix developed by Mepham (e.g. 1996; 2000), is based on a principled approach drawn from the concept of the ‘common morality’ where the ‘impacts’ of a technology are assessed in terms of respect for three ethical principles (wellbeing, autonomy and justice) as they apply to various interest groups.

To explore stakeholder issues raised by the technologies, two workshops and separate postal surveys of farmers, consumers and retailers were conducted to examine the attitudes to the two technologies. Each survey included matched questions, so that attitudes could be cross-compared, with the Ethical Matrix used as a guiding framework. The three surveys highlighted specific attitudes of consumers, farmers and retailers to bST and AMS (response rates were 19.3%, 27.3% and 69% respectively), as well as identifying general trends in attitudes to technological development. Consumers distinguished clearly between what they considered to be more acceptable (AMS was largely acceptable with some caveats) and less acceptable technologies (bST). bST use in the UK was unacceptable to the majority of UK farmers whereas AMS was accepted with caution. Retailers, overall, had a cautious but considered approach to the technologies, applying a precautionary approach in their policies.

Applying the Ethical Matrix aided the clarification of ethical issues which underlie differences in opinion on the acceptability and required legal control of the two technologies. In summary, bST supporters placed a greater emphasis on productivity and prosperity, whereas sceptics focused on perceived risks, and on producers' and consumers' lack of autonomy. Potential positive impacts of AMS were identified as improvements in dairy production efficiency and enhancement of dairy farmer and cow welfare, while concerns included impacts on rural employment, milk quality and the increasingly instrumental use of animals.

The incorporation of bioethical analysis into technology assessment, specifically in the form of the Ethical Matrix, was generally regarded as providing a useful and valuable tool, helping to clarifying issues and encourage dialogue. Individuals with contrasting worldviews can use it effectively, allowing any conflicts and consistencies of the arguments to be cross-compared. This is particularly important for policy makers who need to be explicit and transparent and to justify their decisions by reference to widely accepted ethical norms. At a simplistic level, this method may act merely as a comprehensive check-list, but when applied more comprehensively it can encourage stakeholder dialogue and clarify the interactions of scientific and ethical aspects of a particular issue.



Hide All
Beauchamp, TL. and Childress, JF. 1994. Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Fourth Edition. New York and Oxford: Oxford Press.
Carr, S. and Levidow, L. 2000. Exploring the Links between Science, Uncertainty, and Ethics in Regulatory Controversies about Genetically Modified Crops. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. 12:1:2939
Hogeveen, H. and Meijering, A. (eds ). 2000. Robotic Milking: Proceedings of the International Symposium held in Lelystad, The Netherlands, 17-19 August 2000. Wageningen Pers pp309.
House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. 2000. Science and Society. Session 1999-2000, Third report. HL paper 38, HMSO, London.
Kaiser, M. and Foresberg, E. 2001. Assessing Fisheries - Using an Ethical Matrix in a participatory process. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. 14:191200
Mepham, TB. 1996. Ethical analysis of food biotechnologies: an evaluative framework. In Food Ethics (ed) Mepham, TB. London: Routledge, pp101119.
Mepham, TB. 2000. The role of food ethics in food policy. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 59:609618.
Millar, KM. 2000. The role of bioethical analysis in assessing Automatic Milking Systems (AMS): Examples of animal issues. In Robotic Milking: Proceedings of the International Symposium held in Lelystad, The Netherlands, 17-19 August 2000 (ed) Hogeveen, H and Meijering, A. Wageningen Pers. pp248258
Millar, KM. 2001. Bioremediation: a study of stakeholder attitudes. Biotech 12:13.
Millar, KM., Tomkins, S., White, RP., and Mepham, TB. 2001a. Consumer attitudes to the use of two dairy technologies. British Food Journal (In press).
Millar, KM., Tomkins, S., and Mepham, TB. 2001b. Food biotechnologies and retail ethics: a survey of UK retailers' views on the use of two dairy technologies. International Journal of Food Science and Technology (In press).
OST. 1999. The Advisory and Regulatory Framework for Biotechnology: Report from the Government's Review. Cabinet Office, Office of Science and Technology (OST). HMSO, London
Striling, A. and Mayer, S. 1999. Rethinking Risk : A pilot multi-criteria mapping of a genetically modified crop in agricultural systems in the UK. SPRU, University of Sussex.

Bioethical analysis of biotechnologies: lessons from automatic milking systems (AMS) and bovine somatotrophin (bST)

  • K. M. Millar (a1) and T. B. Mepham (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed