Modelling the ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social aspects of animal genetics

Ken and Howard just hosted a 2-day workshop for academic colleagues based at the Edinburgh and Alberta Universities. The aim of the workshop was to explore the potential of using agent-based modelling (ABM) for engaging a wider range of stakeholders (consumers, supermarkets, farmers, government policy-makers) in the great food debate (e.g. How to Double Global Food Production by 2050 and Reduce Environmental Damage).

We focused on two main themes during the day:

  1. The introduction of disease resistant pigs to farms. The issue here is that whilst these pigs still grow normally they remain infections as they may still carry a pathogen such as a virus. This could have consequences for farmers with non-resistant strains because their pigs could become infected by resistant strains.
  2. Consumer choice and reflexivity. We discussed how ABM could be used to model the extent to which food selection-related behaviours change in human populations. The reflexivity theory suggests there are different cohorts within any population e.g. one where individuals are highly conditioned by close friends and family compared to others that are more reflective and formulate their preferences independently.

This is of interest to the modelling4all project because in  neatly fits into our vision where the BehaviourComposer is used to support constructionist learning not only in the classroom but in society-at-large. We discussed using ABM in focus groups to help people express their preferences and ideas in new ways e.g. asking people to configure an ABM that represents how they would prefer the world to work with respect to a wide range of variables such as price, taste, environment, health risk, seasonal availability. With ABM it might be possible to treat focus group participants less as subjects that provide data for aggregate statistical analysis, and more as designers of whole systems.

ABM makes it easier for more people to understand how their ideas might translate to a society of heterogeneous individuals that influence each other over space and time, where behaviours change as individuals learn, and importantly with respect to the ethics of sustainability – where agents might choose to act on global/system wide information rather than local signals.

For example: if cod fish stocks are about to collapse I stop buying cod (global information) even when cod is still available for a low price in shops (local signal). It is important to remember that if 20% of people refrain from buying cod the reduction in cod consumption is not necessarily the sum of the fish this group would have bought. Humans are social animals – we influence each other in complex and unpredictable ways. The effect of this 20% could actually be to increase cod consumption if shop owners notice the drop in demand and reduce prices to clear stocks. If this tactic works new customers might be introduced to cod who in turn persuade their friends and family to to buy cod. But this would be to discount the tremendous effort of Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall and the big Fish Fight.

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