Common Law’s Groundbreaking Food Law Course

Posted on Thursday, April 26, 2018

The recent Winter Term witnessed the debut of a new course dedicated to a growing area of legal specialization: Food. Professor Heather McLeod-Kilmurray and Angela Lee’s Food Law course is the first of its kind in Canadian common law curricula, debuting in 2018 with unmitigated success.

With debates on food policy happening on Parliament Hill, imminent changes to Canada’s Food Guide, growing concern about how to regulate genetically-modified food products, and the promise of NAFTA negotiations that will affect food production across North America, the study of law’s impact on food has become essential. Law firms, government agencies, and civil society groups are increasingly in need of food law specialists, not to mention the need for expertise on the subject in countless other fields. Professor McLeod-Kilmurray and Angela Lee (a PhD student at the Faculty of Law who focuses on food in her own doctoral research) have responded to this growing need by creating Canada’s first dedicated Food Law course.

“Food law is an interdisciplinary field where you can see the integration of law, science, politics, economics and many other subject areas,” says Kathleen Wang, a student of the course and an executive member of the student-run Food Law Society at the Faculty of Law. “I was blown away by the diverse topics and issues covered in the course. This area of law is constantly growing and changing – it presents a great opportunity for students and lawyers to help shape the future of our food system.”

The course provides a basic overview of food law and policy in Canada. In addition to reviewing the primary acts and actors relevant to this area, Professor McLeod-Kilmurray and Angela Lee survey major topics covering all aspects of the food chain, from production to consumption. Though both professors came into the topic of food by way of their interest in environmental sustainability, they quickly came to see how broad-ranging the study of food is, and how many legal domains it touches. Accordingly, in its first iteration, the course tackled subjects such as food systems and sustainability, the emerging Food Policy for Canada, social justice and the food system, the regulation of GMOs and other food innovations, and Indigenous approaches to food law.

The class was greatly enriched by the contributions of numerous guest speakers from academia, private practice, and civil society, who illustrated to the students the varied ways in which their careers could engage with issues relating to food law. Dr. Don Buckingham, who is now CEO and President of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, was one of the guests brought in to speak to the recent crop of students. Dr. Buckingham had previously taught courses relating to food and agriculture law at the University of Ottawa a decade ago, and has taught, researched, and provided legal counsel on an incredibly diverse array of agricultural and agri-food matters.

“Food law involves so many current issues, including product labelling, marketing to children, regulatory compliance, agriculture, waste, and it has a major impact on human health,” says Filip Hrga, a student in the course and co-founder of the Food Law Society.  “As a self-professed ‘foodie,’ I found myself growing increasingly interested in this area.”

“I really appreciated the broad range of subject matter that the class focused on,” says Alex Buchan, another member of the inaugural class. “It was good to see centralized perspectives of Canadian food policy set alongside paradigms such as food sovereignty and food security. Even if my career doesn’t evolve into food law directly, the class has shown me that my skills and knowledge could be useful for community food initiatives or urban agriculture.”

Under the guidance of Professor McLeod-Kilmurray, Angela Lee, and other faculty members, the University of Ottawa is distinguishing itself as a true Canadian leader in the field of food law. In 2017, the University of Ottawa hosted the second annual Canadian Food Law and Policy Conference. Building on the momentum generated by the first conference – hosted by Dalhousie University in Halifax – the event brought together policy-makers, academics, practitioners, civil society members, and other interested parties to assess the state of food law and policy in Canada and discuss future directions for research, advocacy, and change-making. The third edition will take place in September 2018 at Laval University, and both Professor McLeod-Kilmurray and Angela Lee are involved as members of the Scientific Committee.

Professor McLeod-Kilmurray, Professor Nathalie Chalifour, and Angela Lee are also co-editing an edited volume, Food Law in Canada, forthcoming in 2018. This ground-breaking, cross-disciplinary book, which includes contributions from a range of academics, practitioners, and activists, will fill a gap in the existing literature available on the topic by providing the first comprehensive overview of food law and policy in Canada in a textbook form, including both descriptive overviews and critical perspectives.

“Food is something that affects us all, and both the production and consumption of food are imbued with so many implications,” notes Angela Lee. “It is difficult not to find some aspect of it to be interested in or engaged by, especially considering all of the recent developments in Canada and abroad. It is encouraging to see so much interest and momentum building in food law and policy, and we are confident that this generation of students will go on to be advocates, activists, and thought leaders in this area.”

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