Food Policy Moves to the Fore

In what may show the coalescence of a movement, academia finally appears to embrace the idea that people want more control over their food choices.


Earlier this week the state of Maryland—where I live and am licensed to practice law—announced it was exploring the possibility of creating an agricultural law clinic. The clinic, which would allow students to act as legal advocates on behalf of the state's farmers, would be housed at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore.

While the idea of an agricultural law clinic may strike many as somewhere between pointless and overly narrow, I take it as yet another example of the mushrooming interest among academics and the general public in the area of food law and policy.

My weekly Reason.com column on food law and policy matters, which turned one-year old this month, offers one example of the existence of such a phenomenon.

But others agree that further evidence supports my argument.

For example, a recent Harvard Law School news article claims "there may be no hotter topic in law schools right now than food law and policy[.]"

"Researchers and lay readers in many diverse fields have become fascinated with food policy," says Parke Wilde, an agricultural economist and professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in an email to me.

"I agree that food policy appears to be growing in importance," says Professor Jayson Lusk, who teaches agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University and who I interviewed here over the summer, also by email.

Though increased interest is difficult to quantify, recent examples are legion—and take many forms.

Like the clinic, though, many appear to be centered on empowering consumers and producers against regulators and their ilk.

"As a pundit once said, 'When we leave farm policy to the experts, we actually leave it to the lobbyists,'" says Wilde, himself the author of the new book Food Policy in the United States. "This book pulls open the curtains and lets any interested reader understand the fundamentals of U.S. food policy."

Lusk, too, has a new food policy book out. In The Food Police, Lusk pushes back against what he sees as a dominant, pro-regulatory bent among food writers, which he calls "condescending paternalism."

"[H]aving grown up around the many people involved in agricultural and food production, I felt that the picture painted by… popular books, TV shows, and documentaries about the state of food and agriculture was a bad caricature; it was a distorted picture of reality," says Lusk.

Still another such book, David Gumpert's Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, is set for release this summer.

Jobs are another indicator.

"It was once the case that many of the 'experts' in food policy were housed in agricultural colleges and Universities or the USDA," says Lusk, "but there seem to be more academic jobs in this area in schools of public policy, in disciplines formerly focused on health and nutrition, and even in [m]edical schools."

Jobs like the ones Lusk mentions that may not have existed even five years ago, such as this one at UCLA, are also becoming more common.

And it no longer surprises me when I receive an email out of the blue inviting me to speak to undergraduate or law students specifically about "food freedom"—as happened most recently less than two weeks ago.

These jobs and speaking engagements echo the rise of academic coursework in food law and policy that the Harvard Law School article noted.

Christophe Hille, a food entrepreneur who is co-owner of New York City's Northern Spy Food Co. and a graduate student in nutrition and food studies at New York University, is developing a graduate-level course that he's tentatively titled "Nutrition and its Discontents."

The goal of the class, says Hille (also by email), "is to try to nurture in nutrition, public health, and food systems students a more nuanced view of scientific knowledge, individual dietary behaviors, and public policy options.

"The emergence of more multidisciplinary food policy and law programs such as [Harvard Law School's] Food Law Society suggests that others are also looking for better approaches to progress than we currently seem to have at our disposal[.]"

Across the country, academics appear to be responding to the needs and interests of Americans in new laws and policies that give them more control over their food choices. That's progress indeed.