From across campus here in McCarty Hall where I run the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, agriculture is viewed as the foundation of our systems of law. Let me explain.
I’d argue that agricultural law goes back thousands of years to ancient Sumeria, and maybe even that agriculture gave rise to law.
Think of it this way: In Mesopotamia, irrigation was essential for farming. Sumerians built embankments to control the floodwaters of the Euphrates River. They drained marshes and dug irrigation canals.
Large-scale cooperation was needed to build and repair the irrigation works and to apportion the water. Government and laws arose to fill that need.
So somewhere in Iraq thousands of years ago we had people figuring out we needed rules because of agriculture. They didn’t have the benefit of a University of Florida IFAS Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Law, but they devised some of the first laws of any kind.
Law has evolved since then and continues to change, and that’s why the Center was founded in 1981 within the UF/IFAS Food and Resource Economics Department, or what we affectionately call FRED. The Center serves as a bridge between IFAS’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Levin.
To me it’s another example of UF/IFAS work that when people find out about it, they say, “I didn’t know you did that!”
It’s hard to have an elevator speech about IFAS because it does so much. We carry out the three-pronged land-grant mission of teaching, research and Extension. The teaching is done through the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the College of Veterinary Medicine, the School of Forest Resources and Conservation and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
But it also occurs at Levin College of Law in the agricultural law class taught by Center director Michael Olexa.
Thousands of years after those first Sumerian “attorneys” constructed farming rules, the legal issues for agriculture are fascinating and diverse. For example, I came across an interesting article in Wired recently. That’s your first clue that agriculture is changing – that it gets covered in Wired.
The article was about a farmer who wanted to make fixes and adjustments to his John Deere tractor but was not allowed to do so because of the proprietary software that runs the machine.
The farmer pays for the tractor. He or she owns the wheels, the chassis, the gears and pistons. But John Deere owns the programming that propels the tractor, the software that calibrates the engine, the information necessary to fix it. So, who really owns the tractor?
It’ll take well-trained attorneys to figure out stuff like that. These are questions we couldn’t even have thought about a decade or two ago. We also need attorneys to continue developing our understanding of age-old questions as basic as “What is agriculture?”
Attorneys help us answer questions like: Is there a right to farm? How do we define private property rights? Do farm animals have rights? Who gets to use water, and how much of it?
Faculty and students at Levin can shape the future of agriculture by providing the legal underpinning for policy that promotes profitable and sustainable agriculture. That means making rules to cover agritourism, food safety as food moves rapidly across borders, and what environmental stewardship duties farmers have.
It’s high-stakes stuff. One of my faculty members recently spent nine straight hours being deposed about what his research might contribute to settling the Georgia-Florida water war playing out in the U.S Supreme Court.
We’ve currently got attorneys going through my emails in response to a request from an activist group that opposes genetic modification of crops and wants to know if I’ve ever communicated with biotech companies such as Monsanto.
So I appreciate that agriculture needs more than dedicated scientists and farmers. It needs dedicated lawyers, too. That’s why I’m gratified that Levin offers an agricultural law and policy course.
To ensure the future of Florida agriculture, we’re going to have to fight off new pests and diseases, develop new varieties of crops, and figure out how to use less water. Our researchers are on top of all that. But we also need to have the legal framework that makes farming possible in the future.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.