Food Labeling and the Environment
15 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2019
Date Written: May 9, 2019
Despite its bucolic associations, agriculture—in its modern, industrialized form—has numerous and substantial negative impacts on the environment, including habitat loss; water pollution from fertilizer, animal waste, and pesticide runoff; soil erosion; depletion of water resources for irrigation; and air pollution, among others. These harms are exacerbated in the United States by the numerous statutory exemptions from otherwise applicable environmental regulations that the agricultural industry enjoys. More stringent regulation is clearly needed, but, in light of the formidable strength of the farm lobby, it is worth considering whether there are other ways of reducing agriculture’s environmental harms that could be more readily implemented. This Article will propose one such alternative: harnessing increased consumer interest in the provenance of their food by creating a certification and labeling program for food produced in an environmentally responsible fashion.
Just as many consumers are willing to pay more for fair trade chocolate, pasture-raised beef, and shade-grown coffee, foods that have more comprehensive environmental attributes would likely command a price premium. The promise of a higher selling price would thus reward producers who already engage in sustainable production and induce additional producers to do so. Currently, however, no such certification and labeling program exists. The National Organic Program, of course, has significant environmental dimensions, but it is both under- and overbroad in scope. An organic farm may, for example, have significant environmental impacts through its use of irrigation, while a conventional farm may excel at runoff prevention and provide significant wildlife habitat by leaving marginal land uncultivated. Scholars have proposed holistic environmental certification and labeling regimes, but so far these have not been widely implemented. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does offer direct financial support for resource conservation in agriculture through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, among other programs, these initiatives do not include a corresponding labeling regime to capture consumer demand. This Article suggests that such a regime, while far from being a comprehensive environmental label, might help spur participation in these voluntary programs and demonstrate the benefits to producers of becoming part of a more holistic certification program.
Keywords: private governance, labeling, market signals, organic, environmental attributes, sustainable, U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, food, food law, environmental law, agriculture, consumer
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