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What’s Law Got to do with Agriculture?

Often when people ask “what do you do”, I say, “I’m a lawyer who specialises in agricultural law” or “I research agricultural law” or, more accurately, “I like to eat and learn”. For all answers except the last I am greeted with a confused faces and disinterest. And I get it. The “law” often seems to be confined to parliaments, courts and firms.  It is formal, sanitised, and requires we obey its rules and restrictions. Meanwhile, agriculture takes place in the fields, on the grasslands, near the river’s edge. Agriculture isn’t orderly or theoretical nor does it conform to what we want it to do. While agriculture is the result of efforts by farmers as well as natural resources like soil, law is the result of trends in society, power relations, workings of institutions and political processes. 

But these two different worlds have a lot to do with each other. For starters, the role of law is to influence behaviour. So as agriculture leads to, for instance, food safety issues or land degradation, laws are made to influence behaviour to prevent issues, reduce risks or facilitate solutions. In other words, what happens in agriculture effects what happens in law. At the same time, law influences agriculture. It determines: what farmers can buy (e.g. which fertilisers can be sold on the market); how farmers employ farm workers (e.g. labour laws and standards); where farmers sell their produce and what condition the food or product has to be in (e.g. food labelling standards). Law, for better and worse, also influences how farmers farm. It can motivate farming innovations and particular practices by allowing tax breaks or by creating markets for carbon or ecosystem services. Trade agreements, which are a form of law, influence exports and imports, and some countries use laws to protect their agriculture from competing with imports. Law can also stop farmers from doing particular activities on their land like cutting trees or over-spraying pesticides.

Sometimes law is used to keep farmers out of markets, to reduce access to information for consumers and to increase the costs of farming. For instance, intellectual property law has helped large EU and US companies own and protect innovations in varieties, even though originally no one could “own” a particular type of crop variety. At the same time, law can be used to reduce market access barriers, protect the health of farmers and communities and increase access to healthy foods. For instance, France is considering a law that requires its government facilities (schools, hospitals, etc) source 40 per cent of their food locally with the goal of stimulating local economies and connecting farmers and consumers.

This ability of law to harm farmers, and agriculture more broadly, is the reason more discussions about agricultural law need to take place, and these discussions need to be as inclusive as possible. For law to be a force for good in food and agriculture, farmers, lawyers, scientists and policy-makers need to be at the same table but bring their different perspectives. 

By Dr Hope Johnson

... Mkulima Young Team

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