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.
This is exactly what, Marsh alleges, happened. He alleges that in November 2010 southerly winds carried GM canola across a road separating the two farms and onto Marsh’s land. Marsh alleges that while repairing a fence he noticed parts of canola plants strewn across the road as well as lodged in his fence. He claims he then tested the seeds and found they were genetically modified. Marsh alleges that the seeds eventually spread across 325 hectares of his land, leading to the loss of 70% of his organic certification.
He has taken Baxter to WA’s Supreme Court in a civil case, suing him for damages as well as asking the court to issue a permanent injunction on his neighbour to prevent him from planting more GM crops. Law firm Slater and Gordon are working on the case for Marsh pro bono, while additional support for court costs is coming via the Safe Food Foundation. Baxter is supported by the Pastoralists and Graziers Association; Monsanto will not comment on whether or not it is helping to fund Baxter’s case.
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.
Regardless of the outcome of either case – whatever legal decision is made – what we fundamentally see is that these cases are symptomatic of larger trends taking place around the world, in particular the curtailing of the right to individual freedom. Whoever or whatever is ultimately at legal fault, neither farmer is free to choose what he grows or distributes; nor are consumers free to consume either organic produce from Marsh’s farm, nor raw milk products from their own cows in Ontario. That is, a farmer who chooses to grow organically cannot do so because his land has lost its certification because of contamination by GM crops. Similarly, a dairy farmer cannot supply raw milk to the very owners of the cows that produce it.
What is taking place here?
In one instance the government stands back, resulting in the contamination of organic produce. In the other case the government intervenes pre-emptively to stop the consumption of organic produce, arguing alleged public health risks. (In either case, interestingly, the government shares the same stance or opinions as those of big business – be it the dairy industry or the agribusiness industry.)
It can be an interesting exercise to picture the alternative response in these two cases. That is, we can picture armed government officers arriving not at the house of Michael Schmidt, but at the house of Marsh’s neighbour. Likewise, we can try to picture the Canadian government relaxing laws, as well as agronomists there promoting the widespread adoption of traditional, unpasteurised dairy-farming practices, come what may for any small-scale ‘conventional’ dairy farmers who float on pasteurised islands in an otherwise ocean of raw milk.
As logical as these pictures may seem, however, this is clearly not the reality. So what does reality tell us?
The reality is: there is nowhere to go. There is no longer anywhere we can go and simply put our heads down and ‘mind our own business.’ Both of these cases show that we can pick a small corner of the world and attempt to do what we feel to be right, serving a community who seeks what we are offering, and yet, at any moment, the wind can change. At any moment the wind can shift and blow in that which threatens the very existence of our enterprise and, with it, community. (Another organic farmer in Kojonup commented that she wished the community could all get back to normal, with those who wanted to farm conventionally doing so, and those who wanted to farm organically also doing so. Such a simple return to business as usual is, however, no longer possible.) At any moment armed officers, as representatives of government, can arrive at our door, or GM canola seeds, as representatives of big business and biotechnology, spread themselves across and change forever the ground beneath our feet. It may happen in a completely different way than this, but both these cases are symptomatic of a global reality of our time – that is, there is no longer anywhere in the world we can go and do our work quietly on our own, removed from the whole. The wind has changed – has already changed. Armed officers are already inside our homes.
So what can be done?
It is interesting to observe, in these cases, the activity of both the agribusiness industry and the dairy industry. In both cases they are thinking in terms of the big-picture. They have a goal or vision – for better or worse – that their products should reach a kind of macro level – the level of the whole. This vision is supported by a scientific methodology, however, that views phenomena in isolation, divorced from the whole. It is a methodology, essentially, that is materialistic and positivistic. And yet, this kind of thinking and the fruits thereof, rather than existing in isolation in some small corner of the world, have actually been scattered on the wind, and have found fertile ground in the thinking activity of human beings. The kind of thinking activity – the kind of isolated, genetically modified thinking – even pasteurised thinking, over-cooked to remove all life – is that which currently prevails in the world on the level of the whole – on the global ‘farm.’ Our thinking is, in this sense, modified, engineered, ‘safe,’ pasteurised. It has fallen out of a relationship to the whole context – it has lost its freshness, its originality and rawness; it has lost its life-giving elements.
At least this would appear to be the case after exploring phenomena such as we are looking at here. There exists the possibility, however, that at any moment this tendency of thought life can be overcome. At any moment our thinking can grow into an organic wholeness, and therein find originality, freshness and life. This is possible.
The question remains, however, as to what can be done with the fruits of such consciousness – of such raw, organic, biodynamic thinking activity. At present, the level of the whole – the macro or even ‘mundo’ level – the global farm – is occupied by an inorganic, sterile, lifeless thinking activity and its fruit, be it in science (or culture more broadly), government or business. At present, the fruits – the produce – of living, organic, authentic thinking are still relegated to a small corner of the earth, where they have, for a time, been able to grow slowly. The winds have so far been relatively favourable; officers have been mostly busy with other things. But no longer. The winds and officers come together now, the one bringing the other – and with them come the seeds and fruit of the current global paradigm. Even if they are not yet there, they are already there.
The only possible remedy for this situation – the only possible way to grow further – is that all those who strive to not only think but also act organically and in accordance with the realities of life, do so no longer in small-corner-of-the-earth isolation, but with an inner experience of the reality that their thoughts and deeds correspond to global issues and trends – to the level of the whole – including all others who think and act in similar ways. (Both Marsh and Schmidt show that this is possible and, indeed, necessary, while reminding us of our own responsibilities.) We must develop a feeling for what our individual work and initiatives contribute to global health. In everything we do we can ask, How does my work contribute to the global community? – how do the seeds I plant grow into a new world? The ideas and inspiration for our work fall like drops out of the vast ocean of wholeness; it is only right that, in putting this drop into the world through our deeds, we also develop a feeling for the way in which all our work is contributing something back to the whole. The drop of inspiration that has fallen from the whole seeks to find its way back to its source, metamorphosed through our deeds, changing us as human beings – as well as the earth – as it goes. This is a life-giving ocean – a global, refreshing raincloud – making all soils fertile, be it the inner life of man or, through the free deeds of human beings, the social life of earth, including how we work with land itself. It enlivens our relations with the earth, with plants, with animals, with other human beings, and with all the life of the living ocean of inspiration itself. Other winds blow here. Other forces are present, and available.
No matter what our initiative or work, it seeks to find its natural, lawful, organic relevance to the whole, and, indeed, to grow into the whole. Without this connection, in our time, our work will eventually dry up, like so much lifeless grain. But in the same way culture can be found again in raw milk and in agri-‘culture’ more broadly, so can we bring it to life within ourselves and in all fields of social activity around the world, including government and business. For this is the deeper wind that blows, the stronger ‘armed’ force at work – a new global culture is already upon us, within us, between us…though it waits for us to make it. A new paradigm, a new world, awaits. The question is whether we are going to succumb to its shadow side – the existing global paradigm – or, instead, freely put ourselves in service of a completely new culture and all that streams through it, including the spirit of the earth itself, together with the true spirit of our time.
 See, for example, http://gmo-food.theglobalmail.org/steve-marsh-bad-seeds as well as http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-02-10/landmark-court-case-gm-rights/5241906
 The Australian Pastoralists and Grazers Association believes organic certifiers should reduce the thresholds required for organic certification in order that some contamination by GM crops be permissible. The Canadian government argues raw milk puts the health of others at risk, and acts pre-emptively to ensure safety. It is yet another case of perceived safety taking precedence over individual freedoms. And yet the safety of any state can only be secured through the freedom of its citizens; otherwise, there will always be unrest. To act pre-emptively in this case is to take away the individual’s right to decide whether they consume raw or pasteurised milk, a feat which the individual would appear to be capable of achieving by him or herself. Here, to act pre-emptively to ensure ‘safety’ equals loss of individual freedom. Thus, government oversteps its realm of responsibilities, and ultimately acts in an ‘unsafe’ way. Its role is to provide means for redress if individual freedoms are curtailed by others. Baxter’s freedom to grow GM is not curtailed by Marsh’s organic farming techniques; however, Marsh no longer has the freedom to grow organic food because of GM contamination (be it from Baxter’s farm, as alleged, or elsewhere). Baxter is arguing he followed all existing laws and regulations in the farming of his GM crop and has therefore done nothing wrong (though this has not been enough, Marsh alleges, to protect the freedoms of others). The lawyers arguing their case against Schmidt claim that raw milk has the potential to transmit disease, yet they have apparently had no qualms in shaking Schmidt’s hand in the courtroom.
 Both of which are world conceptions which cannot adequately account for themselves through their own premises. That is, why should purely material processes contemplate their own consciousness? And how does one account for the world conception of positivism in the realm of sensory experience? As such – by not standing up to their own premises – both philosophies collapse upon themselves.
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I love what you have presented in this argument. I have been following the Marsh vs Baxter case and you have given me a very interesting way of thinking about it. Thank you. I recently started my own blog – that is going very slowly as I get used to the program – called The Spelt Project that touches on these issues and will be the richer for having read your words. soiliscapital.wordpress.com
Geraldton Western Australia
[quote]It is interesting to observe, in these cases, the activity of both the agribusiness industry and the dairy industry. In both cases they are thinking in terms of the big-picture. They have a goal or vision – for better or worse – that their products should reach a kind of macro level – the level of the whole.[/quote]
I think sometimes groups who advocate for alternative approaches of all kinds can learn from the professionalism with which “big business” peruses it’s goals.