Ag Law changes reflect social change

Posted by Christine, May 15, 2014

A review of Neil Hamilton’s paper on the history of agricultural law, from the blog Ag Law. It’s an archival paper, recommended for the files of any who keep track of agricultural issues.

For anyone interested in the development and evolution of agricultural law,  a new thought-provoking article published by Neil Hamilton is a great read.  It’s Harvesting the Law: Personal Reflections on Thirty Years of Change in Agricultural Legislation.

Neil has been a law professor focused on agricultural law issues for over thirty years, and a list of the titles of his publications over those years looks like the table of contents of a treatise on emerging agricultural law subjects.  Neil started his legal career working on behalf of farmers during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s and was one of the early leaders in the rebirth of agricultural law as a recognized discipline. His rich historical perspective comes through in an analysis that is both candid and critical.

The article focuses on legislation, a subject that Neil has taught for years at Drake University School of Law, and it examines the development and evolution of agricultural-related legislation in the United States. He classifies the development and focus of agricultural legislation into four distinct but overlapping eras: the traditional development period, the transitional family farm period, the industrial agriculture “Big Ag” period, and the post-industrial food democracy period.  For each period, he examines the role that law plays in promoting the goals and values of the period. His analysis identifies the predictability of legal conflicts between different versions of agriculture, especially during the periods of transition between eras – and identifies several current legal disputes that reflect this ongoing process.

The article also presents observations on the generational differences in students and professors of agricultural and food law.  The influences associated with “when” and “where” people were raised and the type of agricultural they experienced are discussed. One change that is observed – the newer generation of agricultural and food law professors are predominantly female. Another change is that many drawn to the discipline now were not originally tied to the agricultural sector, and they come to the topic through food, nutrition, environmental concerns or other emerging topics such as animal welfare, food access, and farm worker concerns.

The articles uses a legislative analysis to characterize various examples of agricultural legislation in terms of purpose, effectiveness, and who the laws serve.  It categorizes agricultural legislation, giving Neil an opportunity to present his own view of the wisdom and efficacy of each approach.  His categories are thought-provoking and provide a useful framework, even for those who may see the laws differently. His long term perspectives on the industry and attempts to protect it are instructive both for those in the academy and for those considering the future of farming.

The article concludes with examples of important agricultural law topics for future development, issues that are worthy of legislative effort as we work to determine how to sustainably produce the food and fiber we need.

The article provides another example of why agricultural law is a fascinating and challenging area of study and practice.