Food & the Law

What do we mean when we say “the law”? And why is it important to consider the interaction between the law and food issues?

“The law” is a broad term, expansive enough to cover international rules and agreements between countries, and specific enough to include local regulations in your hometown. Taken as a whole, the law has extensive impact, shaping our lives and our interactions in ways big and small. On its own, the law is neutral, and the rule of law is a good thing. But specific laws can have positive or negative (or mixed) effects. They can serve as societal equalizers or can entrench existing wrongs. They can promote human rights or permit actions that have dire consequences.

Laws have a number of impacts on food issues. At the international level, human rights laws, trade laws, and intellectual property protections are just some of the legal regimes that require governments to act in certain ways that affect our access to food. At the domestic level, laws in areas as diverse as antitrust, labor, and property help determine what food is available and who can afford to eat it. Governments use laws to regulate our food systems, including through food safety regulations and agricultural subsidies. Agribusiness corporations use laws to further their own interests. And activists and citizens can use the law to promote food justice. The possibilities are many, ranging from impact litigation to know-your-rights campaigns to contacting politicians about pending legislation. It all starts by looking at the impacts of our laws, and exploring what needs to be changed.

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