Breakthrough Food Leader Josh Donabedian: Focused on Policy & Law

Guest blog post from Josh Donabedian, a participant in our Breakthrough Leaders Program for Sustainable Food Systems. Josh is currently a JD student at Vermont Law School, where he is a founding member the Food & Agricultural Law Society, a campus student group dedicated to the purpose of educating and raising awareness in the area of food and agricultural law and policy throughout the VLS and South communities. He also served on an executive committee that planned a food and agriculture conference at VLS—“Pollinate & Cultivate: Seeding the Future of our Food.”


What are you most looking forward to about the Breakthrough Leaders Program?


What I am most looking forward to is meeting and spending time with so many inspirational and motivated people from around the country and world and learning from their unique perspectives and backgrounds.  As much as I have learned over the past few years, I know there is still so much more I need to know.  I am really excited about the opportunity to both learn from and teach each other, and hopefully establish a few lifelong relationships along the way.


What inspired your interest in the food systems field?


The inspiration behind my interest in sustainable agriculture and food systems was instilled in me at a young age.  I remember running barefoot around my grandpa’s farm, amazed how something like an eggplant or pepper could just grow up out of the ground.  Now, I’m amazed at how these small, local farmers continue to be left out in the rain by their government as they struggle to survive and compete.  I have also witnessed first-hand the impacts that our industrialized food system has had on my father’s local, family-owned produce distribution company.  So when I came to Vermont to study environmental policy, and saw Food Inc. for the first time, the light bulb came on and I knew this is what I had to do with my life.  The next day I hit the ground running and haven’t looked back since.


What about our food systems are you most concerned about? Why?


I am most concerned about the havoc that our food systems continue to wreak on public and environmental health, and how a vast majority of Americans remain in the dark about it.  It is essential to educate the public on the connection between healthy food, healthy living, and a healthy environment, as well as how their consumer habits can influence and perpetuate the current system.  I believe that if we can educate and enable people to make conscious decisions about the food they buy and eat, consumer habits will begin to change.  As public support for a more sustainable approach to agriculture grows and our voices become even more loud and clear, only then will our government representatives begin to advocate for the kind of food and farming policies that enable viable local food systems and support small-scale, local farmers, both domestic and abroad.


If you could change one thing about our food systems today, what would you change?


If I had to change one thing that I think would make the biggest difference, it would be a Supreme Court decision from about thirty years ago that permitted living, human-made microorganisms as patentable subject matter.  This single decision is what opened the door to the eventual patenting of GMO crops and all of the devastating impacts on public and environmental health that flow from industrial commodity farming.


How does your legal education prepare you for working in food systems? 


One important thing my legal education has helped me learn and understand is the relationship between state and federal law as it relates to food systems.  A variety of federal statutes and agencies regulate many aspects of our food systems, limiting what states can do in a lot of ways.  However, state and local governments do retain authority over land use controls and zoning regulation, and I think a solid understanding of what can be done at the state and local level will be invaluable for working in food systems.  My education has also helped me gain a deeper understanding of how we arrived at where we are and to think critically about what legal and policy changes are needed to enable and facilitate the comprehensive reform that our food systems need.


Why do you think Vermont is an ideal place to study food systems?


I find Vermont to be the ideal place to study sustainable agriculture and food systems for a number of reasons.  I identify very closely with the values that so many Vermonters stand for and it is truly inspiring to live in a place where there is so much passion and motivation for bringing about change In our food systems.  The fact that over 200 people packed the Vermont statehouse in early April to unanimously express their support for Bill H.722, which would have required clear labeling of all GMO products sold in the state, is just one great example of this.  And on that note, the unique accessibility of Vermont’s legislature and the opportunity to play an important role in policy development is another reason why Vermont is such a great place to study food systems and be involved in the sustainable agriculture movement.


Which food leaders inspire you?  


There are so many people that have done so much to inspire and create positive change within our food system, but I think the truly inspirational food leaders are our local farmers themselves.  These are the people that work hard day in and day out, staying true to themselves and their values, even if it means living paycheck to paycheck.  Without small-scale, local farmers willing to devote themselves to a life in the fields and take the risks necessary to be successful, there would be little hope of transforming our food system on the scale we desperately need.


What has been your most memorable meal to date?


The meal that stands out the most was the night after I saw Food Inc. for the first time.  I was overwhelmed by what I had seen and knew I had to do something immediately.  So I went home and made a sandwich with my last can of tuna and stopped eating meat the very next day.  I have since started eating local meat again on occasion, but I made it over two years as a vegetarian and it changed my life in a lot of ways.

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