PUBLISHED:September 25, 2014

In the classroom: Food, Agriculture, and the Environment

Michelle Nowlin Michelle Nowlin

Students in Senior Lecturing Fellow Michelle Nowlin’s class on food law and policy are spending the fall semester digging into a few culinary staples of the Tar Heel state: barbecue, corn-and-the-cob, and watermelon.

In her fourth year of teaching Food, Agriculture, and the Environment, Nowlin JD/MA ’92 is taking an organic approach to the curriculum, focusing on the laws and regulations that govern food from the farm to the table. Her curricular menu involves “a heck of a lot of laws” and a regulatory framework that is both technical and dense, she says.

The pork entrée (whether prepared in the rival Eastern or Piedmont styles or as ribs) leads the class into an examination of pork production methods, the laws governing that production, and possible environmental impacts and offsets. Corn-related issues include the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), interference with traditional seed-saving and hybridization techniques, and how Farm Bill subsidies affect the market for corn and corn products. Watermelon raises a discussion of pollinator protection, the health and safety regulation of fresh produce, and organics labeling.

Nowlin wants her students to gain an understanding of how food, agricultural production, and environmental sustainability are connected, as well as the ways in which the law influences food development and can help regulate unwelcome impacts of food production.

“The way we produce food has a lot of unintended consequences in terms of impacts to human and economic health in neighboring communities, animal welfare, and the environment, including emissions of greenhouse gases,” she says.

Nowlin finds that her subject offers a fertile showcase for the interdisciplinary collaboration that informs much of the work at the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, where she is supervising attorney, and elsewhere at Duke University. She makes a point of cross-listing the class, which is always fully enrolled, at other Duke graduate schools.

“We benefit from the expertise brought by students from other disciplines,” she says. “They might be able to address food regulation from a human health or social justice perspective, or explain how pesticide regulation affects soil quality. And it cuts both ways. Someone from Fuqua who is going on to be a product-line manager, or a medical student concerned about childhood obesity or the effectiveness of antibiotics needs to understand the laws and regulatory framework surrounding water and food policies.”

An evolving curriculum

The course arose out of a 2010 student-organized ad hoc seminar on food safety for which Nowlin served as faculty advisor.

“I was interested because I’d worked on agriculture and, tangentially, food issues for a long time and really wanted to do more in the field of sustainable agriculture, looking at local production and regulation of organics,” Nowlin says. The success of that class, which focused on such issues as recall authority, food importation, and port inspections, led her to develop a formal seminar, which she taught with Jeff Ward ’09, who now directs the Start-Up Ventures Clinic and who later served as faculty advisor to another student-organized course on the regulation of beer, wine, and spirits.

“In that first seminar we tackled a lot of the economic factors, different considerations held by farming and food organizations in setting up a corporation, looking at tax and land-use regulations,” Nowlin says. “I dealt with the regulatory side, looking at environmental impacts, how food is labeled and marketed, what tools are available to regulate, including some health and safety issues.

“Now I’m focusing more intentionally on the environmental impacts and tradeoffs associated with our modern industrial system – looking at the ways in which there is exceptionality in the law for agricultural producers and the ways in which those exemptions have been exploited over time.”

Shannon Arata ’13, who is a post-graduate Stanback Fellow in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, says learning about laws governing food production in Nowlin’s class in 2012 refocused her professional interests.

“I came to law school for environmental law, with an interest in water issues and energy production,” says Arata. “But the class got me interested in the environmental impacts and effects on humans from factory farming, and the regulations governing factory farming, as well as other issues I hadn’t previously considered.”

Addressing food issues for clients

Faculty and student engagement with food and agriculture law and policy increasingly extend to their work in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and the Start-Up Ventures Clinic.

In the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Nowlin has supervised student work pertaining to organics, local food policies, and the impact of patent laws on seed-saving techniques for such clients as the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and the Sustainable Foods North Carolina Coalition. They have also addressed zoning and best-management practices for Tilthy Rich, an organization dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint associated with food waste and to increasing soil health in the Durham area.

Ward has brought food-related clients into the Start-Up Ventures Clinic, where students have provided counsel to early-stage food entrepreneurs such Seal the Seasons Produce, an organization that partners with local farmers and distributors to sell fresh and frozen pre-cut organic produce, and Made With Love, an artisanal organic bakery.