Saturday, November 10, 2007

Thoughts on Food & Agriculture

An earlier post, Arkansas' LL.M. Program in Agricultural Law announced another recruiting season for the LL.M. program. That post noted an increasing interest in the program on the part of students and practicing attorneys concerned with issues of food law and policy. This observation and subsequent references to it, have caused some interesting discussions about the relationship between agricultural law and food law. It appears that some in the agricultural law world are uncertain about the intrusion of "foodies." My thoughts on the issue, while evolving, begin as follows:

Agricultural law can be defined as the network of laws that apply to the production, marketing, and sale of agricultural products. Food, with the exception of that which is hunted, gathered, or created in a chemistry lab, is an agricultural product.

So, in one respect, food law can be seen as a subset of agricultural law. The informational materials for the Agricultural Law LL.M. Program reference agricultural law as "the laws that apply to the production marketing, and sale of the food we eat, the natural fibers we wear, and increasingly, the bio-fuel that runs our cars."

But, in reality, food is much than a simple subset. Agriculture began as an attempt to produce food, and it is the production of food that has historically given agriculture its claim to special status world wide. Human survival (indeed, the survival of any animal) is dependent upon two basic elements - food and water, and agriculture uses one to produce the other.

So it is not surprising that as interest in food has increased in our popular culture, interest in agricultural law has also increased. What impact might this have on American farmers and on agricultural law?

In my view, having consumers more interested in the food they eat and where it comes represents a remarkable opportunity for agriculture, and it represents an exciting new frontier for agricultural law. Farmers are not used to consumer "interference" in the agricultural marketplace, so some conflicts are anticipated. But, consider the following arguments, all presented from the perspective of the American farmer.

1) The industrialization of U.S. agriculture has been fueled largely based the goal of cheap food. However, in the long run, cheap food is not the wagon that American farmers want to hitch their horse to . . . First, cheap food is one of the reasons why American farmers have had so many financial struggles. Second, other countries can and often do produce food more cheaply, witness Vietnamese catfish. To prevent American agriculture from going the way of the North Carolina textile industry, and for American farmers to continue to be successful as producers of our nation's food, consumers need to care about more than just price.

2) Consumer interest in food offers farmers a unique opportunity for a market that is interested in the products they have to sell. Consider for example, the ongoing efforts by Appalachian Rural Development to help Virginia Burley Tobacco farmers to convert their farming operations to organic vegetables. This effort was highlighted on a recent segment of the PBS news show Now. As one farmer says of the transition, "I can make more money selling tomatoes than I can tobacco." It is that simple.

The slow food movement, self-defined as advocating "a food system that is based on the principles of high quality and taste, environmental sustainability, and social justice," also presents opportunities. While that may sound a little too "lefty" for Farm Bureau, if you step back from the political hot buttons, that food system offers a lot of advantages to the American farmer - particularly if consumers are willing to pay for such a system.

And, of course there are other consumer interests, some as basic as food safety or buying local to reduce "food miles" that offer American farmers an opportunity to market their products to informed buyers.

3) Key to building loyalty between consumers and American farmers is knowledge. In the last two generations, consumers have moved so far away from their food that they no longer even understand the risks inherent in agriculture. Few have ever been on a working farm, and few ever have any personal impact when there is a crop failure. What if the oranges freeze in Florida? We'll just import them from Brazil. In contrast, consider the regular shopper at the farmers' market. She understands when the weather has been too cold and wet for tomatoes - she sees the results, and she talks to the growers. Which consumer is more likely to support Congressionally funded disaster assistance programs and other special protections for farmers? The answer is pretty clear - we care about what we know about.

Farmers may feed the world, but now the world would like a say in what they eat. That sounds like a great marketing opportunity to me.


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