On Wednesday evening January 27, 2016, the Pace Law School and NRDC Food Initiative held its inaugural annual lecture, which consisted of a panel conversation. The participants were Pace’s own Margot Pollans, a professor and also the founding director of the Pace/NRDC food initiative, and Margaret Brown, who is an attorney at NRDC working on creating a just and sustainable food system in NYC and around the nation. The panel was moderated by Jason Czarnezki, Pace’s environmental law program director. The evening started with some barbecue from Brooklyn restaurant, the Smoke Joint, and a keg of Catskill Brewery’s Floodwatch IPA. It was a great way to kick off a panel focused on food and food systems.
Opening remarks were made by Mark Izeman, director of NRDC’s New York Urban Program. Izeman highlighted some of the projects that NRDC is already working on in the food sector in NYC including a wholesale farmers market project with GrowNYC; involvement in Governor Cuomo’s NY Pollinator Task Force; supporting the Urban School Food Alliance in it’s switch to antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed and humanely treated poultry; and more recently a listening tour to find out what direct legal services farmers and food producers need. Izeman also noted NRDC’s long working relationship with Pace and then launched into the components of the new Food Law initiative. There are 4 main components of the program: (1) the annual lecture (of which this was the first), (2) a workshop series on food law issues for law students and practicing lawyers, (3) an externship program for a Pace student to work at NRDC on food law issues (this year’s inaugural extern is T.L. Gray, a 2L at Pace), and (4) a transactional food law clinic to help those in the food industry – particularly those with limited financial resources. While the workshop and clinic details were not elaborated on, the lecture and externship are under way in 2016.
After Mr. Izeman’s welcome, he turned the floor over to Jason Czarnezki, who moderated the panel. Jason noted the emergence of interest in food law and policy among lawyers and law students and remarked on the wonderful opportunity Pace has to work alongside NRDC in this exciting and expanding area of practice with the goal of creating food revolutionaries.
Prof. Czarnezki started the panel by asking Ms. Brown and Prof. Pollans how they each became interested in making food a part of their legal careers. Brown said she had initially been interested in saving the environment, but became frustrated as a 1L because of the dearth of environmental law classes. After her 1L year she spent some time working on a horse-powered farm in Maine. She came back to NYC with the idea of being a farmer, but eventually found NRDC and its burgeoning food movement and “glommed” on. Pollans mentioned that she is mainly interested in the environmental consequences of food production and the intersection of the natural environment and the food environment. She noted that the law plays an important role in food production because of land use regulations determining what can be grown and where.
Over the next 45 minutes Prof. Pollans and Ms. Brown answered questions about the burgeoning food law movement and where they saw successes, opportunities and needs. At one point Prof. Pollans explained that food law is really the combination of many different areas of law including production, disposal and distribution of food. When Prof. Czarnezki challenged Ms. Brown to further define the food movement she declined saying that the broader the movement is, the more inclusive it is and that a more narrow definition may alienate and exclude some groups of people. The exciting thing about food and food law is that everyone is impacted by our food system and thus the more voices we include in reform and change, the better the system may work for the whole society.
Another theme that the women touched on was the limitations of the law. Some of the practices that are most harmful to the environment, such as eating meat, wasting food and eating processed foods, are embedded in our culture. In order to put an end to harmful practices, people need to be educated about alternatives and in some instances shown how achievable change can be. To this end, the ideas of using chefs as food educators and other ways to reach and educate people on how to eat healthier, waste less and be more involved in their own food consumption were discussed.
Wrapping up the discussion, a question from the crowd regarding how to solve the disparity of consumer side economics of food, namely the relative expense of more healthful and sustainable foods (e.g. organic, local or sustainably farmed) was answered by both Brown and Pollans. Ms. Brown stated that more sustainable foods need to be produced and made widely available. Carrying on that same idea – Prof. Pollans derided the current tiered food system. She described the frustration that she feels about the reality that consumers need to look at and understand labels on food to decide whether the food meets basic standards of health or not. The idea that we are sold and consume foods that do not enrich our health or nourish us is disturbing because we are often unaware of what the labels on our foods mean for our health and the health of our environment. How are consumers to decide what is what in the face of millions of food products available for consumption? Pollans advocates for a system where we are not subsidizing food products, but rather one in which consumers pay what the actual cost of food production and then the inequities in food distribution and accessibility can be dealt with in another way.
This last sentiment neatly wrapped up the evening by tying together the current problems we face in inequity of health and food distribution and the need for real change in the way we approach food production, distribution, and consumption in this country.