ENV 852b/LAW 21769 (Online) / 2020-2021

Food Systems and Environmental Law

Credits: 2
Teaching Mode: Online

Spring 2021: W, 4:10-6:00, Online

Follows Yale Law calendar.
Limited enrollment: Course is currently closed

We eat food every day.  The food system, from agricultural production to processing and distribution to consumption and waste, shapes our lives.  Less well known, but of equal or greater impact, the food system profoundly affects our environment, climate, and public health.  This course takes the food one eats in a day and uses those to demonstrate the environmental impact of modern agriculture and the U.S. laws that attempt to reduce those harms.

Today’s industrial food system bears little relation to the bucolic family farms we imagine – and that were in Congress’s mind when it passed most modern environmental laws. Since the 1970’s when most environmental laws were enacted, U.S. agriculture has grown increasingly concentrated and industrial.  In terms of output of cheap food, the system is a success: we now produce about 60% more food than we need, food is about one-third less expensive today than in 1980; and less than 2% of U.S. employment is in agriculture.  In addition, agriculture now also produces about 10% of the nation’s vehicle fuel (mostly corn-based ethanol).

On the other hand, the increased industrialization, without the environmental safeguards applicable to other industries, has led to agriculture being a major source of environmental and health harm.  Agriculture occupies approximately 60% of the country’s contiguous land and thus is the main driver of loss of native habitats.  Almost 800 million acres of U.S. land are used for pasture or range for livestock—activities that often destroy habitat, imperil native species, and pollute waters.  Most row crops are monocultures dependent on high doses of fertilizers and pesticides that pollute waters and endanger workers, surrounding communities, and downstream consumers.  The vast majority of our meat is produced in industrial-scale “concentrated animal feeding operations” that house thousands or even millions of animals producing more waste than many cities, yet without sewage treatment systems, and thus cause significant water and air pollution.  Agriculture is responsible for about 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and the food system as a whole contributes a quarter to a third of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond agriculture itself, the manufacture of farm inputs is energy-intensive and highly polluting; animal slaughtering is highly polluting; and food processing, distribution, and preparation is energy-intensive.  At the end of the system, approximately 35% of food is wasted and most of that ends up in landfills where it releases methane. 

US environmental law directly and indirectly seeks to reduce these harms, although often in partial, ineffective, or unenforceable ways.  While there are alternative production systems that have been demonstrated to produce sufficient food with much less environmental impact, the law rarely encourages, and often discourages such approaches.  This course studies existing US environmental law and its strengths and weaknesses, and explores alternative approaches to environmental and public health protections.  We start and end with climate change – its impact on agriculture and agriculture’s impact on climate – and address other impacts and statutes between. Paper required
Limited to 18