Food, Law & the Environment: Informational and Structural Changes for a Sustainable Food System
28 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2011 Last revised: 29 Apr 2015
The relationships between food systems, law, and the environment are strong. The ecological costs of modern industrial and large scale food production are driven by greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizers and pesticides, and food miles, as well as agricultural law. Food choices contribute to the climate crisis, cause species loss, impair water and air quality, and accelerate land use degradation. For example, "An estimated 25 percent of the emissions produced by people in industrialized nations can be traced to the food they eat."
The ecological costs of the modern industrial, carbon heavy food system are well‑chronicled. Chemical inputs, in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, have the potential, through runoff, to pollute groundwater and streams, to cause algae blooms and oxygen depletion in waterways, contribute to soil acidification, kill beneficial insects, and potentially poison wildlife and their reproductive systems. Industrial farming techniques such as over‑tilling, a lack of crop rotation, inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and monoculture mines the soil of its natural nutrients, destroys soil biota and its habitat, and increases erosion. And contributing to the climate crisis, fossil fuels remain the single most important ingredient in the modern food system, not only used as fuel for transportation and production of food, but also to produce fertilizers and pesticides.
In an effort to change food choices and inform consumers of the environmental impacts of food, I have already argued for creation of an eco‑label for food, based on environmental life‑cycle analysis from production to use to distribution, building on existing organic and carbon labeling programs. But improved eco‑labeling is only a start, since it only provides information to consumers on available food products that are often industrially produced and processed. It does not directly improve and increase the supply of and access to ecologically friendly food products (though may do so indirectly due to consumer demand). Both informational regulation that helps influence consumer choice and structural changes that provide consumers with better access to better choices are necessary for a sustainable food system to develop.
Thus, in addition to improving labeling schemes to support environmentally‑friendly food consumption, the market of available food products must be improved. Public law and policy drives American food choices and, in turn, fosters environmental degradation. Legal policies might better support a low‑input, more local and less processed market. Already significant efforts are underway to build a more community‑driven food system that would reduce food miles, decrease consumption of processed foods that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and lessen the impacts of chemicals on the environment. While overarching changes in national agricultural law and policy are necessary, beginning with the Farm Bill, second‑best solutions like eco‑labels and creating new food markets are useful steps. Such steps are even more important given that the organic market is becoming dominated by actors of industrial agriculture, and "the organic sector is coming increasingly to resemble other sectors of commodity‑driven agriculture."
This Article considers legal, theoretical, and practical steps to a more sustainable food model. Part I of this Article discusses the underlying reasons for problems in the current food system, including those manifested in law, and the perceived benefits of creating a new agricultural paradigm.
Part II discusses the major agricultural and food programs that have become more common in shaping a different food system model, specifically focusing on direct marketing (e.g., farmers markets and community‑supported agriculture) and the organic movement as it relates to small farmers.
Part III argues that in order to change modern American food consumption, two changes must take place‑increased awareness and increased availability. This Article reiterates the need to increase available information about the consequences of food choices, and argues that structural changes in the food system are necessary to increase access to sustainable foods by building on current efforts to increase direct marketing by farmers and organic certification, creating better food system planning through state food policy councils and municipal planners, building on existing interests in intrastate and regional efforts supporting local food and local economies, and improving management of existing alternative agricultural distribution and production systems.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation