LAWRENCE — Revolutionizing the way humans practice agriculture by implementing new practices supported by international bodies might sound like a radical idea. Yet it's possible, according to a University of Kansas legal expert whose new book shares how similar international bodies have already moved beyond the 16th century idea of sovereignty. A global corporate trust for agroecological integrity could help prevent a collapse in the systems humans use for food production.
Climate change, soil degradation, erosion and poor farming practices have put agriculture and ecosystems around the world in peril. John Head, the Robert W. Wagstaff Distinguished Professor of Law at KU, has written a new book and a pair of law review articles outlining how institutional changes could form entities that oversee agricultural concerns in what he calls “eco-states” instead of nation-states. Those could usher in a change from current extractive agricultural methods to natural-systems agriculture featuring grains and legumes that are perennial and grown in polycultures.
“A Global Corporate Trust for Agroecological Integrity: New Agriculture in a World of Legitimate Eco-States” outlines not only how such a massive transition is possible but how the formation of eco-states that govern ag concerns across borders can be done and how similar bodies already exist.
“We have such an urgent problem right now of soil erosion, soil degradation and climate change. To reverse that, there has to be some way of coordinating a type of entity such as ecological states,” Head said. “With the weight of climate change and the pressure that this puts on agriculture, there have to be points of departure and a ‘taking of the bull by the horns’ to make change.”
Head uses his extensive experience in law, international organizations and farming to make his case through three propositions. The first is that the extractive form of agriculture humans have used for about 10,000 years can and should be replaced with natural-systems forms of agriculture, known as agroecological husbandry. He acknowledges that this requires major changes in agricultural philosophy and practices, but he also points to remarkable progress already made in developing perennial grains as a result of research in places such as the Land Institute in Salina. Head also cites gains in African and East Asian nations, including perennial rice in China. Such an approach could ultimately produce the grains that make up about 67% of the human diet without requiring land to be turned annually and without requiring nearly the amount of fossil fuels currently used.
“I think there’s enough momentum already built up on the shift to perennial polycultures that it’s time to develop legal reforms to facilitate that shift,” Head said. “The science is underway. I’m saying we need to make the legal and institutional changes to support the transformation.”
In his second proposition, Head outlines how supporting that transition would require reforming the notion of sovereignty that humans have held since it was developed in the 16th century. States and nations frequently have disputes about agricultural issues such as pumping water from a river for irrigation. Ecological states with “pluralistic sovereignty” could be formed to give authority to govern ag concerns in areas of the world with similar agricultural production. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Earth has 14 terrestrial biomes, or areas with similar climate, soil type, crop growing conditions and other factors. Eco-states could govern these concerns and ag transitions more effectively than current political, state-based approaches.
“Political boundaries mean nothing to a river. All the so-called nation-state boundaries you see on a map are artificial, from an ecological standpoint,” Head said.
Eco-states could be protective of such biomes and ecosystems and their concerns such as land use and conservation in a manner parallel to the structure of nation-states, he said.
The third proposition calls for the formation of a global corporate trust for agroecological integrity, which would represent a “fourth-generation international organization designed to ensure that our species recognizes and discharges its responsibility as trustees for generations to come, whose well-being turns on agricultural reform and ecological restoration.”
Head acknowledged it may sound like a radical idea to form such international bodies but points out multiple examples already exist overseeing a number of concerns around the globe. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Greenpeace and nonsovereign organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and International Chamber of Commerce all work across political borders. For a more local example, Head cites how a city such as Lawrence, home to KU, is under the auspices of four levels of sovereignty: the city, Douglas County, the state of Kansas and the United States.
“There’s nothing here that doesn’t build on precedent,” Head said. “There are examples everywhere. Let’s expand on that and improve that.”
Given his extensive experience working for international organizations such as the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Head outlines how a global corporate trust could be formed while avoiding the problems that plague the existing institutions, most of which are now over a half-century old. One example is a very different voting structure giving equal weight to interested parties governed by each eco-state.
The book is the second in a series of three on transforming the world’s agricultural practices and the resulting necessary legal reforms. “International Law and Agroecological Husbandry: Building Legal Foundations for a New Agriculture” was published in 2016 and outlines the legal changes necessary, while the second book addresses institutional reforms.
Head also recently wrote two law review articles that delve further into the legal aspects of transforming agriculture. In one, published in the University of Kansas Law Review, Head reviews the ages-old concept of sovereignty as exercised by nation-states, and how legal reform could address the issues and global challenges that have relevance in Kansas. A second, published in the Kentucky Journal of Equine, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Law, outlines how legal and policy initiatives, both currently underway and those that could take place in the future, could put Kentucky at the forefront of agricultural advances and innovative ways of producing food crops.
Both agricultural challenges and the legal reforms necessary to address them are near and dear to Head’s heart. Having grown up on a northeast Missouri farm, which he and his brother still own, he saw both the rewards of farming and the challenges it presented. As a legal scholar with extensive experience in international organizations, he knows both the good they can do in addressing multinational problems as well as the pitfalls such organizations can present. In his scholarship, he approaches the problem by asking what the alternative is. Doing nothing to change the way humans grow their food could be catastrophic, and in fact, momentum is already building to make such changes.
“I think it makes sense to consider what types of new designs we can use,” Head said. “I’m saying take those examples of federalism and overlapping sovereignty and expand them into something that can really make a difference in international agriculture reform.”
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