20 : Research ethics for food ethics

Nobutsugu Kanzaki

 Faculty of Global Liberal Studies, Nanzan University, Nagoya Aichi Japan


Food ethics researches are often transdisciplinary and have the dual nature of research/practice. This type of research requires additional research-ethical considerations. In this talk, I will examine the three issues: stakeholders' purpose and value, STS methods, and commitment. Although these are ethical issues that researchers are often faced with, they have not been fully considered from research ethics.

Although these are not an exhaustive list of the issues worth considering, several contributions to food ethics will be expected through the examination of these three issues. First, food ethics researchers will have a better understanding of what food ethics research should be. Second, stakeholders will understand food ethics research. Thirdly, food ethics research can contribute to providing essential insights into research ethics.

The need for the research-ethics perspective on food ethics will increase as food ethics practices become more active in the Asia-Pacific region. APSAFE2020 will provide the opportunity for discussion.


research ethics, transdisciplinary research/practice, STS methods, stakeholders/participants

1  Introduction

Food ethics research includes transdisciplinary practice involving the participation of various stakeholders other than researchers (Sato 2016 p.177). The dual nature of research and practice requires the research ethics for this type of research with some additional ethical considerations that are not needed in other types of research. The purpose of this presentation is to analyze the ethical considerations specific to such research (Local Science Network for Environment and Sustainability 2011). By conducting such an analysis, several results are expected as follows. First, our researchers will gain a better understanding of what food ethics research should be. Second, it will enable stakeholders other than researchers to understand better and better utilize Food ethics research. Thirdly, food ethics research can contribute to providing essential insights into research ethics.

In this presentation, I will examine the three issues of stakeholders' purpose and value, STS methods, and commitment. Although these are ethical issues that researchers who participate in transdisciplinary research are often faced, they have not been fully considered from an ethical perspective. Therefore, consideration of these issues may contribute to the development of research ethics for the future research/practice of food ethics.



2  Purpose and value of stakeholders

First, Researchers should understand that stakeholders involved in the practice, whether existing or initiated by the researcher, are not the subjects or informants for the study. For stakeholders are involved in their practice for their purposes and values. In co-design practice, researchers are also just one stakeholder. As a result, scientists' objectives, scientific research, are at best equal to or less important than the objectives of other stakeholders and are not in a superior position. Improperly giving research objectives an unfair priority is one of the ethical injustices a researcher may commit.

Moreover, the purpose and value of stakeholders are not the same. Stakeholders have diverse purposes and values that often conflict with each other. Here researchers have to face one ethical dilemma. On the one hand, researchers must respect the purpose and value of each stakeholder. In transdisciplinary and co-design practices, researchers are not in a position to determine which purpose and value are most important. In addition, we must respect the diversity of values and opinions as research norms.

On the other hand, researchers follow the purpose and value specific to their discipline when conducting research. In the case of Food ethics, food sustainability and food sovereignty are examples of such goals and values. Can Researchers treat stakeholders who share their goals and values and stakeholders who do not share them? Researchers should avoid trying to revise the values of stakeholders or moving away from such stakeholders.

However, whether or not researchers should respect stakeholders' purpose and value equally can be a significant research ethical question. In connection with this question, practices such as food ethics may pose the following problems. Researchers may try to reach out to stakeholders in an attitude that "the purpose we are gathering here is not to find the right answer, but to exchange ideas with each other." As a result of such attitudes, they could end up with nothing for their stakeholders. Stakeholders who have such experience may lose interest or distrust of food ethics research. Researchers should avoid such distrust.

There is probably no definitive solution to these problems. Therefore, what researchers can do is accept an ethical norm of research that they must always be reflective of their attitudes and relationships with their stakeholders. Also, it may be useful for researchers to have the opportunity to discuss the experiences of this type of research with each other.



3  STS methods

Next, let us consider the problem when researchers set up a forum where various stakeholders can exchange ideas and experiences and work together to tackle some tasks. In these settings, researchers often specify how participants do them. Researchers conducting transdisciplinary studies have prepared such STS methods. For example, there are ways to use Post-It to draw out ideas and organize them, or various ideas to give participants a fair opportunity to speak.

The problem is that sessions using these techniques often do not result in satisfying participants. Repeating the session without reflecting on this point would lead participants to criticize researchers.

First, sessions sometimes do not have enough time. It takes some time for participants to get to know each other and start exchanging valuable ideas, but the timetables set by researchers are often too short. One possible reason for this is that researchers may have experienced and become accustomed to sessions using these techniques many times, but participants do not necessarily. Moreover, if the lack of time makes it impossible to summarize and evaluate the session outcomes, participants will be dissatisfied. Researchers should always be cautious if conducting the session becomes the purpose of the session. This purpose may seem valuable to researchers, but not to participants.

Next, there are cases where participants cannot understand why such methods and devices are necessary. If participants feel no need for the methods, some will refuse to participate in the session. Possible reasons for denial of participation are lack of explanation by researchers or inappropriateness. Alternatively, maybe it is simply because the method is boring. Therefore, the researcher must give a proper explanation to the participants and verify that the method is worth doing.



4   Commitment

The goals of stakeholders in food ethics practice often include sustainability. As a result, long-term commitment becomes an ethical obligation for researchers when they participate in such practices. If a researcher leaves a practice for a short time, for example, as soon as he or she gets resources for a paper, he commits ethical dishonesty that treats other stakeholders as mere tools for his or her interest. 

 However, it should be noted that such criticism would sometimes be an excessive ethical requirement. Researchers who do not have a tenured position may have to unintentionally leave the field of practice because they do not have a stable research fund or post. In such cases, researchers do not deserve ethical criticism.

 There is another issue to consider. When a researcher participates in the field of practice in the stance that the actors are stakeholders only and the researcher is only in a position to support their practice, how long should the researcher continue to participate in the field? By successfully supporting other stakeholders, researchers may eventually remove the need for their existence in their practice. One answer to this situation would be that researchers can continue to participate for other purposes, even after achieving the goal of supporting other stakeholders. An example of such a purpose is the enjoyment of participating in such practices and interacting with various people. Getting fun from being involved in food ethics practice does not mean the exploitation of other stakeholders, and researchers do not have to worry about receiving ethical criticism.



5  Conclusion

In this presentation, three research ethics issues for food ethics are considered: the purpose and value of stakeholders, STS methods, and commitment. Although there are many reports on practice related to food ethics regarding practice and methods used in practice, analysis of such practice from an ethical research perspective is sufficient. However, the need for such ethical research will increase as food ethics practices become more active in the Asia-Pacific region. These three are not exhaustive of the issues worth considering. Further development of the analysis presented here is also necessary. APSAFE2020 will be the right opportunity for such development.




This work was supported by Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 19K21619).


  • Sato, Tetsu. 2016. Field Scientist: The Perspective of Integrated Local Environment Studies. Tokyo: the University of Tokyo Press. (published in Japanese)
  • Local Science Network for Environment and Sustainability. 2011. The guidelines on collaborations between Local Communities and Scientists detailed version. http://lsnes.org/guideline_en/details.html. Accessed 15 August 2020.