Nowlin deepens focus on connections between food and agricultural production and environment

August 30, 2016Duke Law News

Senior Lecturing Fellow Michelle Nowlin Senior Lecturing Fellow Michelle Nowlin JD/MA '92

Through her teaching, research, and advocacy, Clinical Professor Michelle Nowlin has been instrumental in establishing the interrelationship of food and agriculture production and environmental sustainability as areas of legal and policy focus at Duke. Nowlin, the supervising attorney in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, is now broadening her network in the field with a yearlong Bass Connections class at Duke and as chair-elect of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Section on Agriculture and Food Law.

The AALS section serves as a forum for the exchange of ideas and collaboration with other scholars and confirms a growing interest in the field, said Nowlin JD/MA ’92, who has taught Food, Agriculture and the Environment: Law & Policy at Duke Law for four years.

“The establishment of the section serves as recognition that this is an area of importance for scholarship and as an adjunct to the more established areas of administrative and environmental law,” she said, adding that she appreciates the opportunity to learn how food and agriculture law and policy are being taught around the country as well as to share Duke’s distinctive integration of environmental law and policy.

As chair-elect of the section, Nowlin is helping the current chair to plan programming for the section’s meeting at the AALS annual conference January 2017 in San Francisco, which will include a forum on land-tenure issues, addressing land rights for small holders and small agricultural producers.

“Land tenure is an important issue in the United States, where we have an aging farm population and increased investment from corporations and financial companies in agricultural land, which is driving up land values and preventing new, younger farmers from entering the market” she said. “Around the globe, we see a trend moving away from a small, agrarian model and to a larger corporate model, one that’s managed for profit through investment companies. That presents challenges for sustainability in the agricultural sphere, as well as for rural economic development.” Nowlin, who credits Stanback Fellow Emily Spiegel ’14 with providing valuable input on programming, said she hopes the forum at the AALS annual meeting will attract academics from a wide range of disciplines who seek to address issues of social equity, economic development, and land use in their classes.

Nowlin’s yearlong Bass Connections class examines agricultural animal waste management policies and practices through the lens of global health and climate change, looking at technology solutions that are available to address those twin issues. A partnership between the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative (DCOI), the class of 15 law students, undergraduates, and graduate students from the engineering, environment, and business schools is researching how policies affect animal waste management in developing, semi-developed, and developed countries, and the global health effects associated with waste production.

“It’s meant to be a comparative study of the ways different countries are addressing industrialized food animal production, how they are considering and responding to such concerns as antibiotic resistance and conveyance of pathogens, and looking at how energy systems are trying to utilize these resources as a fuel source,” she said. The team anticipates producing a report that includes policy recommendations for minimizing the negative effects of meat production and educational materials for policymakers. Nowlin is teaching and leading the Bass Connections team with DCOI Project Manager Charles Adair and H. Kim Lyerly, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Immunology. Ori Sharon LLM ’13, an SJD candidate at the Law School, serves as teaching assistant for the course.

Nowlin has researched concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) extensively both in the context of her clinic advocacy and scholarship. She and Spiegel have co-authored a chapter in the forthcoming Research Handbook on Climate Change and Agricultural Law examining how CAFOs contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and domestic and international policy mechanisms that could be used to help mitigate the problem.

In her fall semester course on food, agriculture, and the environment, Nowlin takes students through law and policy issues pertaining to each of those areas. “I think of it as the law of farm-to-table, looking at issues of exceptionality in the agricultural sphere, consumer welfare in terms of the regulation of food and, of course, environmental impact,” she said. The class is open to students from the Nicholas School for the Environment and the Sanford School of Public Policy, where plans are underway to establish a World Food Policy Center, as well as to Duke Law students.

Duke’s focus on the environmental nexus to food and agriculture law and policy is distinctive among law schools, said Nowlin, a longtime board member overseeing the Duke Campus Farm, where student volunteers cultivate sustainably grown produce for delivery to Duke dining and community supporters. “Nationwide, about half of our land mass is used in some form of agricultural production. So if you are talking about any one activity that has an impact on the environment, this is where you need to be looking. And that’s both where a lot of the problems, from an environmental standpoint, arise, and also where a lot of the solutions lie.”