On November 23, all across this great land of Canada, people gathered in many of the provinces’ major cities to rally for and celebrate Food Freedom Day. The rallies took place on the fifth anniversary of the 2006 raid on dairy farmer and raw milk activist, Michael Schmidt’s Glencolton Farms.
The Michael Schmidt Backstory
Glencolton Farms, Schmidt’s Durham farm that promotes organic produce and raw milk, was raided in 2006 by 24 officers, many of them armed, of Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Milk, equipment and personal belongings were confiscated and Schmidt was faced with 19 charges relating to producing, selling and distributing unpasteurized milk through a cow-share business. The Food and Drug Act makes it illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Canada because it’s considered a health hazard.
Schmidt disagrees, however, and he openly admitted to supplying raw milk to 150 families after selling memberships to partial shares in 26 cows on his farm. Schmidt defended himself and in January, 2010 was acquitted of all charges, but on September 28, 2011, Justice Peter Tetley reversed the court decision and found Schmidt guilty of 15 of the original 19 charges.
Immediately after hearing the news, Schmidt requested an audience with Premier Dalton McGuinty to discuss his case and his stance on the issue. He began a hunger strike, which lasted 37 days, until he met the Premier.
The Food Freedom Rallies
“What started violently at our small farm has become a National issue and debate of great importance. What started as a raw milk debate has become a basic Food Rights issue,” Schmidt recently wrote to The Bovine, a blog dedicated to raw milk rights issues. “What started as a lonely journey years ago has become a movement of many, a movement of farmers, consumers, mothers, children, grand mothers and grand fathers.”
With rallies across Canada, in cities including Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, St. John’s, Regina and Edmonton, Michael Schmidt says that November 23 marks the first National Day for Responsible Food Freedom. The rallies and events, he stated, “celebrate our fundamental rights as it pertains to our body and our food.”
In Victoria, over a hundred people gathered outside the Legislature Buildings to support the cause, drink raw milk and eat cookies. The Milk and Cookies Rally for Food Freedom was organized by Nadine Ijaz and Jan Steinman, who, with the help of BC herd-share activist Jackie Ingram, rallied up, not only government officials, but a cow and goat.
In an interview with CTV, Ijaz said of the issues with government regulations, “We’re talking about fundamental food freedoms, meaning freedom of choice to choose what we eat and where we get that food. And right now the issue on the table is raw milk.”
Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations make it so that milk must be pasteurized in order to be sold to the public. Pasteurization basically means that heat is applied to kill organisms, organisms that Health Canada believes may cause human disease. “Raw or unpasteurized milk may contain bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. Bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, have been found in raw or unpasteurized milk,” states the Health Canada website.
But, while pasteurized milk is the standard, the process actually kills a lot of the nutrients found in raw milk. There are many recent studies that document the health benefits of raw milk, including a European study that proves that children who drink raw milk are less likely to develop asthma and allergies than those who drink pasteurized milk.
Pasteurization kills most, if not all, micro organisms, including the ones that aid in digestion and metabolization. Raw milk farmers are more likely to feed their cows properly, allowing the cows to graze in toxin free pastures, eating green grass and hay, which provide the milk with nutrients like vitamins A and D.
Raw milk supporters point out that the dairy industry raises cows in less-expensive, less-healthy conditions and relies on pasteurization to ‘clean up’ the toxins from the unhealthy grains, which ultimately act as fillers, that are being ingested by the cows.
But, regardless of any proof, Health Canada states, “any possible benefits are outweighed by the serious risk of illness from drinking raw milk. Pasteurization is an important process in order to make sure that the milk Canadians drink is safe.”
And, we all know how concerned with our health the government must really be. As Ijaz said, “We’re being given this line that raw milk is so dangerous that we should not have the right to choose it, although we can choose whiskey, we can choose cigarettes, Twinkies, Coca-Cola, all of these things that we know have definite health risks.”
As David E. Gumpert wrote in The Raw Milk Revolution, “You are ten times more likely to contract listeria from a bologna sandwich than you are from raw milk.”
Advocates of Herd-sharing
Just across the border, not too far from Victoria, Americans are free to drink and sell raw milk whenever and however they like. But, Canadians aren’t offered the same liberties. Federal law prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk in Canada, but we can buy it in the States and bring it back over the border.
Provincially, BC’s Milk Industry Act prohibits any supplying, distribution or sale of raw milk, but, technically, it is legal to drink raw milk. The problem is, you have to own the animal providing the milk, so herd-sharing or cow-sharing operations may be the answer.
“If you’re an owner of an animal, you can do whatever you want with that milk, except give it away,” said Ijaz. “This is the principle behind herd-sharing, is that if I can buy a share in that cow, then the milk should also belong to me.”
So, Ijaz and Salt Spring Island herd-share farmer, Jan Steinman, were joined by farmer Kerry Van Wiltenburg, herd-share activist, Jackie Ingram and four MLAs – Lana Popham, Jenny Kwan, Mike Farnworth and Nicholas Simons – to lobby for the herd-sharing movement. To urge BC to take leadership in this necessary change, Steinman, Ijaz, Ingram, Popham and Farnworth each spoke to the crowd in front of the the Parliament Buildings.
“Having access to raw milk through cow-share programs where devotees buy a share of a dairy herd for personal use and not for resale seems like an innovative and reasonable solution,” said Opposition Agriculture Critic Lana Popham.
That same day, MLA Kwan tabled a petition in the Legislature on the matter.
“Both MLA Kwan and I would like to work on this issue and we are looking into ways that other jurisdictions have accommodated the right to consume raw milk but at the same time respecting the Federal Legislation,” said Popham. “We hope to be able to improve the opportunity here in BC.”
Act of Open Civil Disobedience
After the speeches, the supporters – at least the willing ones – were given raw milk that had been brought over from Washington State. Herd-share farmer and co-organizer Jan Steinman came to the rally accompanied by his goat, Shakti. And following a light snack of milk and cookies, the crowd watched as Steinman milked Shakti, then illegally shared the goat’s fresh milk with her new owner, who had, only moments before, signed on to be a shareholder.
Michael Schmidt’s Sentencing
On November 25, Michael Schmidt was found guilty on charges related to the production, sale and distribution of unpasteurized milk under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act. He was fined $9,150, not to mention a $1,945 “victim surcharge,” and was given a year’s probation.
He refused his fines.
“We are taking back our fundamental right to make decisions in regards to our very personal basic needs,” Schmidt said about the Food Freedom Rallies, just a couple days earlier. “We are taking back our fundamental right to freely engage privately with each other. We are taking back our right to be free of fear from dictatorial agencies having hijacked our protection.”
There are still many issues to be addressed and the fight for food freedom is far from over, but the support shown on November 23 proves that these advocates won’t stop until there’s a significant change.