DEBATE has erupted in the federal Senate over the WA Liberal-National government’s moves to repeal the State’s prohibitive Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act 2003.
A motion was moved in the Senate by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith who supports the use of GM technology in the name of farmers having choice.
Predictably, the motion – which referenced the significant uptake of GM canola by farmers in WA over the past five years - was opposed by the Australian Greens.
WA Greens Senator and party agriculture spokesperson Rachel Siewert said the motion did not reflect the will of all WA farmers.
“There are many WA farmers who do not want to have to grow genetically modified crops or materials,” she said.
“They have been contaminated with genetically modified plants and that has affected their bottom line.
“Mr (Steve) Marsh is a classic example of that.
“He did not ask to be contaminated.
“His economic bottom line was severely affected by contamination from genetically modified crops.
“We will not be supporting this motion and it is not true to say that, currently, every farmer in WA has a choice.
“They do not have choice when they are contaminated by genetically modified crops.”
But Senator Smith praised the WA government’s plans to repeal the legislative framework that was implemented by the former WA Labor government, to create GM-free areas within WA.
His motion said the policy decision to repeal the Act – likely early next year – had the “united support” of WA's two major farming organisations - the WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association and WAFarmers.
It said there was large scale adoption of Roundup Ready canola by WA farmers following its introduction by the WA Liberal-National State government in 2009/10.
The motion also supported recommendations of both the 2006 statutory review of the Gene Technology Act 2000, and the 2011 Review of the Gene Technology Act 2000 which noted that GM crops posed no adverse impact on markets and concluded that State bans were having detrimental, rather than beneficial impacts.
However, it also sought to condemn the WA State Labor Party's anti-GM policy, “including the reintroduction of a ban on cultivating GM crops if re-elected”.
That drew a strong response from Queensland Labor Senator Claire Moore who said the motion’s “condemnation” of the former WA Labor government “demonstrates that it is purely a political stunt”.
“If the government members were serious about the issue they would urging their PM to pursue these issues through the COAG process,” she said.
But Senator Smith said his motion was about supporting WA farmers’ rights to make their own decisions about farming practices.
“With one in three WA farmers having planted GM canola it is high time to remove the former Labor State government's out-of-date regulations,” he said.
“GM canola has been grown in WA since 2010 when the state government granted an exemption to allow commercial cultivation of GM canola.
“Since then WA has had the most rapid uptake of Roundup Ready canola of all states which allow biotech canola to be grown.
“WA's Roundup Ready canola plantings made up 74 per cent of the total 348,200 hectare GM canola crop planted in Australia last year.
“The shrill ideological opponents of GM have failed to provide any scientific evidence to prove that GM crops are unsafe or pose an economic risk for non-GM growers.
“All WA farmers are asking is for the right to make their own decisions and choices and have the same opportunity as eastern states farmers.”
Mr Marsh lost his legal test-case against his GM canola farming neighbour Mike Baxter in the WA Supreme Court decision handed down last year.
Mr Marsh and wife Sue had sought $85,000 in losses after their organic certification was removed when GM canola swathes were detected on their Kojonup grain and sheep farm in late 2010.
In September this year, the WA Supreme Court’s Court of Appeal rejected an appeal of the decision of Justice Ken Martin’s ruling last year, to dismiss the Marshes' causes of action in common law negligence and private nuisance.
The Court of Appeal’s 2-1 decision has now been appealed to the High Court.
The Marsh organic grain and livestock farm was decertified by the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) which has a zero tolerance for GMs which was heavily criticised in Justice Martin’s 150-page decision.
In her written dissenting judgment, Appeal Court Justice Carmel McLure said the trial judge made several unchallenged findings of fact including that “GM canola is entirely benign, it not being in any way toxic, harmful or otherwise dangerous to humans, animals or land”.
“The GM canola from the respondent's farm did no physical damage to persons, animals or property on Eagle Rest,” her reasoning stated.
“Accordingly, the loss the subject of the appellants' claims in negligence and nuisance was pure economic loss.
“None of the crops or sheep on Eagle Rest could, by cross-pollination or otherwise, acquire the genetically modified traits of GM canola.
“There was no real risk of cross-pollination or outcrossing with weeds or other plants on Eagle Rest.”