A WESTERN Australian Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) proposal for tolerance to genetically modified (GM) material in organic produce has been rejected.
The DAFWA submission called for a 0.9 per cent tolerance level to GM material in organic produce, but has been turned down by the Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council (OISCC).
DAFWA made the submission in light of the high profile Marsh v Baxter court case in WA, where organic farmer Steve Marsh lost a case for compensation due to contamination by a neighbour growing GM crops.
OISCC claimed its decision to turn down the DAFWA was based on World Trade Organization (WTO) international food standards.
Marg Will, secretariat for OISCC, cited the WTO’s Codex Alimentarius guidelines, which she said excluded GM totally from organic systems.
“The guidelines state that GM material is not compatible with the principles of organic production,” she said.
For its part, DAFWA argued that there was a tolerance level for GM material in organic products in the EU.
“We requested an amendment of the standard to allow a 0.9 per cent tolerance level for the presence of GM, comparable with tolerance levels in the EU,” a DAFWA spokesperson said.
There was disappointment, but resignation from the WA broadacre farming community.
John Snooke, chairman of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia (PGA) Western Graingrowers, said he was not surprised at the decision.
“We didn’t think there would be any way this submission would be approved before the appeal of the Marsh v Baxter case goes ahead in March.”
He said he did not agree with the food safety angle.
“There were ample opportunities during the Marsh v Baxter cases to present evidence of GM’s harmfulness and nothing was presented, we feel this is purely a political decision.”
There may still be a chance for some sort of coexistence between the organic and GM sectors, an issue which has been topical, and sparked the DAFWA submission, since WA organic grain producer Steve Marsh lost his organic certification due to GM material from a neighbouring canola crop allegedly being present in his crop.
A submission from Australian Certified Organic (ACO) could leave organic produce contaminated with GM material unavailable for sale, however, the property where it was grown would not be decertified as an organic producer - as is currently the situation - if there was adventitious presence (AP) of a low level of GM matter.
Ms Will said the ACO submission was currently being looked at and that it would be one way to address the problem of accidental contamination.
“It is looking at more testing in-crop and a strong emphasis on buffers and exclusion zones,” Ms Will said.
She said any additional costs in compliance such as testing or setting up exclusion zones would fall to the organic producer.
Mr Snooke said he did not think organic standards needed to be changed.
“As we interpret the standards there was no need for Steve Marsh to be decertified in the first place, as it was an accidental incursion.
“The sad bit about this for the organic sector is that this zero tolerance approach only hurts their own industry.
“In conventional agriculture the use of thresholds works well to allow coexistence.”
Choice is key
Matthew Cossey, chief executive of CropLife, the Australian plant science peak body, said choice was the key.
“We want to ensure that all Australian farmers have a choice to grow any approved crop on their land. No farmer should have to change their farming methods simply because of unreasonable, illogical and internationally inconsistent organic marketing rules.
“That is why CropLife Australia is continuing to work with policy makers and farmer organisations, and welcomes engagement with the organics industry to improve the regulatory framework for farming systems, to prevent unnecessary risk for all farmers and their neighbours,” he said.
A DAFWA spokesperson said the department is currently considering the OISCC finding and will seek further clarification on the decision.
OISCC represents six companies licensed to give organic certification in Australia.