Monday, April 16, 2012

Professor Bret Birdsong Explores the Legal Mechanics of the Modern Food System

The legal academy has paid relatively little attention to issues of broad popular concern about the modern food system, but UNLV Boyd School of Law Professor Bret Birdsong is working to change that. 

He is one of a group of legal scholars who are rethinking and redefining food law. 

In a forthcoming article, Birdsong argues that the field of Food Law must expand beyond the values of “safe” and “cheap.” He exhorts legal scholars to address the legal determinants of the food system from a broader array of perspectives and values. 

“There is an increasing understanding that food is not just some nicely wrapped bundle found on the supermarket shelf. It is a product of a long supply chain and of processes – from the farm to the factory – that have implications not just for eaters, but for workers, for wildlife, for the environment, even for foreign relations,” Birdsong said. 

The law, he added, should incorporate those broader values, and legal scholars should work to explore how the modern food system either serves or does not serve those values.

“My broader project,” he said, “is to look under the hood of the modern food system to see what legal machinery is there and to evaluate how that machinery makes the food system run. Once we know that, we can think about how to tinker with that machinery in order to steer the food system where we want it to go based on society’s modern values.” 

Food and farming have always been important industries, he explains, and a set of laws has long addressed the core issues that those industries face. As a result, statutes like the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act are pillars of progressive-era regulation and are aimed at ensuring a “safe” food supply. 

Similarly, New Deal programs aim to provide support and stability for the farm sector, largely to ensure that affordable food will be produced in plentiful amounts in the long run. Legal scholars to date have tended to think narrowly of “Food and Drug Law,” or “Food Safety Law,” or “Agricultural Law.”

In recent years, there has been a cornucopia of popular books and documentary films about food and food policy. 

Books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation as well as films like Food, Inc. and Super Size Me have spawned new perspectives on how and what we eat and the consequences of our modern food system.  It is now commonly understood that what people eat affects not just their own health, but also the workers that produced the food, the environment and many other important values.

Birdsong presented his thoughts at the annual conference of the Association of American Law Schools and organized a group of papers for the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities conference held at the Boyd School of Law in March 2011.  He also will be participating in a workshop of food law scholars at the University of Colorado in June 2012.

“It is exciting to be part of an emerging group of legal scholars looking at food from different perspectives,” Birdsong said. 

He noted that he comes to food law as a scholar of environmental and natural resources law.  Other legal scholars approach food law with other areas of expertise, ranging from labor to intellectual property. 

Ordinarily, he said, legal scholars with such disparate interests might have little reason to exchange ideas. 

“But food is bringing us together.”

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