As Laurie Ristino likes to remind her students, sometimes the law leads. Sometimes it needs to catch up. When it comes to the current set of laws and policies that govern our nation’s food system, it’s easy to see how new laws need to get out in front to help create the infrastructure for a healthier, more sustainable way to grow and distribute the food we eat. The current system is based on a conventional, large-scale, commoditized food-production approach that’s nearly forty years old.
But Laurie is quick to argue that popular culture has already made a case for a new way. She points to the ubiquity of Thai restaurants and our increasing interest in ethnic foods of all kinds; she looks at the popularity of the Food Channel and celebrity chefs and best-selling authors such as Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan; looks at the long rows of vegetarian cookbooks, the farm-to-table concept, the natoinal push to label GMOs. “The word ‘organic’ has become a mainstream word,” she says. “National chains and brands recognize it.” In all of these cases, she sees a movement toward food that is diverse, locally grown, and part of a more sustainable system. A new set of laws, policies, and best practices needs to catch up with the movement.
The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems was created at Vermont Law School for just that purpose. Its director, who started in January of 2013, brings a national perspective to the position. Laurie was born in Massachusetts and spent time in Maine and Vermont growing up. She earned degrees from the University of Michigan, University of Iowa, and George Mason University. She had established a reputation as a national expert on the conservation and preservation of working land. At the time of her hiring, she held the position of senior counsel with the Office of the General Counsel at USDA in Washington, was teaching law courses at George Washington University — and had no plans of leaving.
She saw the job description, though, saw the size of the blank canvas it promised, and “realized it included everything I’d ever wanted in my career.”
Part of the appeal was the place. Vermont, she knew, was out in front on the genetically modified food and the labeling debate. It was a leader in the area organic farming, farmers markets, and developing systems to market local food. Vermont residents, per capita, consume more locally produced food than any state in the nation. It was wonderfully fertile ground for growing a new kind of food and agriculture center.
But ultimately, she took the risk because of the school itself. “I think of law as an entrepreneurial degree. In our increasingly complex world, having the legal tools to create new organizations and new solutions is incredibly useful. Vermont Law School is an incubator for innovative, creative people who want to take those tools and do something positive with them. Among law schools, it’s absolutely unique.”