A sea change is happening in the way Americans feed themselves and the way they think about food. It’s showing up all around us: on television, in the newspaper, on our dinner tables, in public schools, and especially at the supermarket. Californians in particular are spearheading organizations, programs, and campaigns designed to steer the public in a more food-centric direction. For example, the California Department of Food and Agriculture hosts a robustly developed Farm to Fork Office “committed to helping all Californians access healthy and nutritious California-grown food.” In 2014, several California Unified School Districts adopted a program called “California Thursdays,” which features various farm-to-fork oriented activities, like showing the students how to make fresh almond butter, or sampling in-season foods grown in nearby agricultural communities. The California Thursdays program is funded with grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, among other public sources.
In 2014, Raley’s Supermarket ran a television campaign in California, which features one of its employees speaking about organic and locally raised produce. The employee underscores Raley’s aspiration that these “all natural” products eventually “become the norm.” On its website, you can find information about Raley’s “Living Local” program, which partners with farmers located within 50 miles of each Raley’s store, and whose agricultural products are featured on their shelves. For Californians, to be unfamiliar with at least one of the many ideological movements gaining momentum within the food and agricultural community could be considered a social offense.
As a result of these social and political movements, our society is currently faced with more questions than answers when it comes to the future of food and agriculture. The gentle flurry of laws and regulations that have started to appear in some of the more food-centric communities, like California, are gaining momentum and show no sign of stopping. The policies that will be enacted will have a ripple effect throughout the industry, primarily when it comes to food safety, labeling, marketing, and consumer demand. And as the domestic and global population grows and grocers are called upon to increase their production capacity to meet greater demands, they will require passionate, well-informed people are willing to explore different issues and social movements, and who are dedicated to finding solutions that make the world a better place to be a farmer.
When affronted with the concept of food and agriculture law and policy, most laypersons, and even many lawyers, would think of it as a narrow field perhaps endeavored with the defense of cattle theft allegations or the barter and sale of tractor equipment. A clever retort is to task these individuals with naming a single field of law that does not involve food and agriculture, and the grocery industry in particular. Labor and employment. Intellectual property. Environmental studies. Business and corporations. International relations. Banking and economics. Health and Safety. Education. Land use and planning. Trust and estate planning. Real estate. Marketing and advertising. Maritime law. Immigration. Politics. Food and agriculture is not a single area of law. Rather, it is a blanket that has been woven and unwoven using many different threads.
Regardless of the positions that each of us take on these food-centric, ideological movements, we should be thankful for the very fact that the conversation is taking place. As a result of these ideas, many Americans have been dispelled of the notion that agriculture lives in a black and white still frame photograph in a history book. Americans are learning that the food and agriculture industry is one of the strongest notes in America’s heartbeat and that it is a critical part of our future.
At a glance, these social movements garner an affirmative nod from the unsuspecting critic. After all, who among us would choose the week old tomatoes over the picked-from-the-vine-yesterday grapes? And it is all too enticing to find comfort in their “feel-good” nature and the political responses they’ve evoked, and to assure ourselves that something is being done to improve food quality in California and across the nation. But if you polled 100 Californians regarding the meaning of the words “organic,” “all natural,” and “GMO,” would we find a uniform response? And what if that poll was broadened to consist of two residents from each state? How similar or different would their definitions be? What perceptional disparities would we uncover regarding not only the meaning of these concepts, but the sense of importance that they might play in an individual’s food choices and eating patterns?
And what biases are these food movements creating? If a single mother of four young children sees an article in Good Housekeeping magazine touting the benefits of all natural yogurt “free of processed ingredients,” what impact will it have on the decisions she makes at the supermarket regarding other food items, like dairy, grains, and meat? Does this plant a seed of doubt in her mind regarding all products that contain processed ingredients? And does she understand correctly what it means for a particular ingredient to be processed?
While the farm-to-fork and local food movements have been bubbling up from grassroots organizations for quite some time, municipalities at every level have started responding to the movements by creating laws and regulations that affect the way food is prepared, packaged, marketed, and sold. In many ways, these laws are being developed and enacted in a piecemeal fashion, responding to the social and ideological movements that happen to be en vogue at the time. These issues, policies, and ideas swirl about news networks and social media sites, providing only a few words about the recent developments and proposed regulations coming down the pipeline. In the world of tweets and texts, many people have lost the patience and discipline it takes to read in-depth articles or academic studies that have the page space and acumen to fully explore the matter at hand. Many of us think nothing more of these movements, ideas, and laws. We embrace them as some form of advancement in the culinary world, and tout ourselves as pioneers in the modern food movement.
To some, ideas are beacons of hope, signposts of progress, and assurances that our best efforts are always being put forth. To others, ideas are threats to the way life has always been, preying on tradition and seeking to fix things that one does not believe to be broken. And even the greatest idea, when implemented thoughtlessly, may be destined to fail. The danger that lies ahead for many agricultural professionals is the ease with which the public, and even many food and agriculture professionals, can make uninformed decisions about the particular relevance or benefits of various laws, regulations, policies, and social movements involving food and agriculture.
Like farming, an idea begins no differently than a seed. The way the field is plowed, the quality of the soil in which they’ll grow and the water and nutrients they are provided will make all the difference on their ability to thrive and grow. If handled with care and attention, a single seed or idea can flourish into an abundant harvest. Many of these movements have the potential to revolutionize modern farming and to resolve many issues plaguing the industry around the globe. However, if haphazardly sown without clear goals, rules, and objectives, this seed may sprout into a weed and foster more lament than prosperity. Social movements alone do not pose a threat to modern agriculture. Rather, it is the way in which we bring these ideas to the field that will determine whether they will take us from famine to feast, or feast to famine.
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