10/14/2014 12:23 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST

Why Canada Needs More Food Lawyers

The development of food law in Canada is having an impact beyond the legal community and is an exciting development for anyone who engages with the food system, whether they be food entrepreneurs, scientists, regulators, or the everyday consumer.

There is a newly prominent practice area in the field of law and it is beginning to receive a lot of attention -- food law and policy.

George Mason University Law Professor, Baylen Linnekin, and the Director of Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic, Emily Broad Lieb, recently published a ten-year retrospective on food law and policy in the Wisconsin Law Review. In their paper, Linnekin and Lieb contextualize the development of food law as separate from the traditional areas of agricultural law or pharmaceutical regulatory law, the areas most often associated with food law. They describe food law as having a major policy component unique unto itself that requires a contemplation of the impact that laws and regulations have on the "food and beverages we grow, raise, produce, transport, buy, sell, distribute, share, cook, eat, and drink."

Though both increasingly relevant and rapidly growing, the practice of food law has its challenges. Mary Beth Albright, a food lawyer in Washington, D.C., recently wrote for National Geographic's The Plate about the versatility that is required of a food lawyer as opposed to lawyers who inhabit more traditional areas of practice. She describes the practice as requiring a lawyer to be comfortable in a multifaceted role: "Being a food lawyer not only allows, but requires, interdisciplinary thinking and using the existing system in inventive ways." Maintaining a current and deep base of knowledge to approach the variety of problems that come across a food lawyer's desk is tough work and, until recently, a food lawyer didn't have many places to turn for support.

Over the past several years, many academic institutions in the United States have begun to create law school courses that engage food law concepts with LL.M. and certificate-based food law programs at UCLA, Harvard, Arkansas, and Michigan State. Conferences are bringing attention to this emerging area of practice as well as bringing practitioners together to create food law specific content. As a practicing food lawyer, I have been watching these developments intently while working with federal, provincial and municipal laws and regulations that seek to implement various Canadian food policies. But in Canada, when compared to America and Europe, the legal profession has been relatively slow to engage food law.

Until 2014, that is. This year law students have created a Food Law Society at the University of Toronto Law School, which has been modelled on the groundbreaking Harvard Food Law Society. For lawyers, the national professional organization Food Lawyers of Canada has been created to help further the practice area and develop professional knowledge. Such initiatives are working to encourage law students and lawyers in Canada to think about how to better engage our food systems and incorporate aspects of food into their practices.

The development of food law in Canada is having an impact beyond the legal community and is an exciting development for anyone who engages with the food system, whether they be food entrepreneurs, scientists, regulators, or the everyday consumer. Because food lawyers represent clients from every part of Canadian food systems, they are able to approach problems with a multi-stakeholder perspective and a versatile set of skills. Food lawyers' interests are in better laws -- laws that benefit the system as a whole and enable a more fair, balanced, and effective legal and regulatory regime for the production, processing, and sale of food in Canada. Accordingly, a food lawyer can be an effective person to develop policy, advocate for a client, or navigate complex regulatory bodies.

Canadians are spending more time thinking about their food: where it comes from, how it is sourced, treated and graded. Having lawyers who are conversant in Canadian and global food systems should result in better food laws, better advice for food enterprises, a multi-stakeholder approach to regulatory reform, and a group of passionate professionals keen to improve upon our food systems.

For lawyers, the excitement is even greater. When at law school, most students are presented with a fairly traditional canon of practice areas to choose from in order to prepare for traditional careers both within and outside of the legal world -- to become criminal, family, corporate, or in-house lawyers. But, as Mary Beth Albright rightly points out, if you're keen on using the creative skills that enabled you to get in and through law school, food law and policy brings a fresh dimension to a legal career that addresses issues that are rapidly becoming increasingly important from government to business to your plate.


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