“Two court proceedings of global significance are currently underway. The first is in Perth, Western Australia; the second in Ontario, Canada. Both cases have relevance not just for the future of food, but of social life as a whole.
Steve Marsh is an organic farmer from Kojonup, Western Australia. He grew up using ‘conventional’ farming methods, and continued to do so when he took over the farm from his father. After experiencing a number of health issues, however, as well as observing reduced powers in some sheep dips and commercial fertilisers, he decided to trial, in 2004, organic farming, particularly grains. The yields were slightly lower, he said, but the quality was better. He also met a real consumer need for organic produce, and so was able to remain financially viable. Ultimately, he said he was happy to be providing a good quality, natural product to consumers.
In 2010 the WA government lifted a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) canola. Monsanto (and others) began offering to farmers a form of canola engineered to be resistant to herbicides such as its own trademark herbicide ‘Roundup.’ Farmers, keen to increase yields, were advised by agronomists to use the GM canola, together with herbicides such as Roundup in order to kill ‘weeds,’ including rye grass. Many farmers took up the advice, including many of Marsh’s neighbours.
One of Marsh’s neighbours, Michael Baxter, grew up with Marsh. They went to the same primary school and, as it is in small rural communities, know each other relatively well. Marsh knew that Baxter had planted Monsanto’s GM canola. He also knew that it could blow across onto his organic land. If this happened, Marsh knew he would probably lose his organic certification and, with it, his livelihood. Under existing government regulations, or lack thereof, Marsh knew that if such contamination occurred he would be left with no other option than to sue for damages….”
“On the other side of the world, Michael Schmidt – a biodynamic-organic dairy farmer from Ontario – has been fighting for around 20 years to supply raw milk to those who want it. In Canada – as in many places in the ‘developed’ world – it is illegal to supply or distribute raw milk, with the Ontario government arguing that it represents a “significant public health risk.” Schmidt argues that by making the sale and distribution of unpasteurised milk illegal, the government is infringing upon the basic freedoms of both himself and those who want the milk. His lawyer has argued that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes “the right of individuals to make decisions pertaining to their own bodies and their own health.”
Over the years, Schmidt has been in and out of court – sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always arguing for the right of individuals to choose what they consume. Schmidt even attempted to work within the confines of the law by offering ‘cow shares’ to consumers. Under this scheme, consumers own the cow while Schmidt acts as an ‘agister’ for others – that is, as a carer for the livestock owned by others. In this sense, Schmidt says he was not selling or distributing milk – the owners themselves were choosing to consume the product from their own cows. The courts have so far rejected this argument.
In 2006 his farm was raided by armed officers, his equipment seized and all dairy products destroyed. In 2011 a provincial court convicted Schmidt of 13 charges under the Health Protection and Promotion Act and the Raw Milk Act, fining him $9150 CAD. This decision overturned an earlier acquittal in which the judge sided with Schmidt. He is currently awaiting the result of his February 5 appeal to the highest court in Ontario.
In a way, both these cases represent a kind of ‘last straw’ for both Schmidt and Marsh, both of whom have attempted to resolve their particular issues in other ways with government before finding themselves in court. In a sense, they have been forced into these situations.
The issue, in either case, is only partly to do with GM vs. organic, or raw vs. pasteurised milk. This is only the ‘cream’ that settles on the surface of each case; but it does tell us something, however, about what is taking place below the surface, and it is an exploration of these deeper realities which can help us in moving forward….”