VISITING US journalist Jon Entine says pro-organic supporters of WA farmer Steve Marsh went “picking for a fight” and played the “contamination card”, believing their legal battle over genetically modified (GM) crops was a “slam dunk”.
But the high profile science communicator believes WA GM canola farmer Mike Baxter ultimately repelled the real Goliath in a David and Goliath battle, and won the controversial Marsh v Baxter case after standing up on principle.
As previously reported by FarmOnline, Mr Marsh last week lost his Supreme Court appeal for compensation after GM canola was found on his organic Kojonup property in 2010.
Mr Entine is in Australia for the Agricultural Bioscience International Conference in Melbourne which has covered his costs.
He will address the National Press Club tomorrow on the theme, Myths and Truths on GMOs: The story behind the Anti-Technology Attack on Modern Food and Farming.
Mr Entine said he understood GM patent holder Monsanto had expressed initial concerns that the weight of public opinion was against them and doubted the legal system would consider the Marsh v Baxter case fairly.
He said they subsequently sought to push Mr Baxter into settling the claim against his organic farming neighbour out of court and to pay minor damages and “move on”.
But he said Mr Baxter’s “fortitude” allowed him to push forward and fight the case “because he wasn’t about to capitulate on something that he didn’t agree with”.
“He (Mr Baxter) felt it was wrong and fundamentally unfair and decided to go through with it and also defied Monsanto in this case and good for him,” he said.
“This is a victory for the average farmer and it’s a victory for David.”
While he is in Canberra this week, Mr Entine will meet federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, Shadow Joel Fitzgibbon and other leading farming identities.
He will also hold media interviews to express his views about the North American experience where GM crops like corn, cotton and soybeans have dominated the farming landscape for two decades.
“From half way around the world it looked like Marsh and the Australian organic establishment was picking for a fight”
His visit comes just days after Mr Baxter’s organic farming neighbours Steve and Sue Marsh lost a controversial appeal against the WA Supreme Court’s decision last year, to reject their $85,000 compensation claim, following GM canola being detected on their grain and sheep farm in late 2010.
That discovery, in the first year WA legalised commercial GM canola production, triggered the loss of the Marshes’ organic certification with the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA).
Last week, the Appeal Court dismissed an appeal of the decision handed down by Justice Ken Martin, following a two-week trial in February last year.
While dissenting Appeal Court Justice Carmel McLure disagreed with her other two colleagues, she didn’t argue with Justice Martin’s findings about the safety and efficacy of GM crops.
“The trial judge made a number of unchallenged findings of fact,” her decision last week said.
“They are as follows.
“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.
“Accordingly, the loss the subject of the appellants' claims in negligence and nuisance was pure economic loss.”
An 'ideological war'
Mr Entine said the canola swaths posed no safety threat but lay on the organic farmer’s property for six months and could have easily been removed by either of the two farmers, to avoid excessive costs and legal argument.
But he said the issue “suddenly escalated” into an ideological war between an organic farmer - backed by the organic industry and other supporters - who willingly tried to impose his “philosophical almost religious-like views of farming on his neighbour”.
But “frankly the courts saw it for what it was,” he said.
“From half way around the world it looked like Marsh and the Australian organic establishment was picking for a fight,” he said.
“It looks like they thought they had an easily winnable battle between the public relations windfall, playing the contamination card, evoking public sympathy for David fighting the Goliath of Monsanto and big agricultural industry.
“They thought it was slam dunk but unfortunately for them we have laws in place and frankly common sense switched on this, in the court of public opinion.
“The more the facts of the case came out, the more one recognised that Marsh, and big organic in Australia, was playing fast and loose with the facts to manipulate public opinion and in the end they lost.”
Mr Entine said NASAA’s zero tolerance for GMs underpinned the legal dispute and triggered the decertification but it was “ideologically based” and a non-government standard not based in science.
He said it was only a standard imposed by the organic industry that Mr Marsh had voluntarily signed up for “and he has to face the consequences of that”.
“You can-not punish a farmer for operating within not only reason, but the law,” he said.
“But essentially that’s what Marsh was trying to do by saying to his neighbour ‘you have to follow our rules which are not based on reason or standard agricultural practices. They’re based on our ideology and if you don’t follow our ideological way of defining farming then you’re going to pay the consequences’.
“However, that’s absurd and it’s patently silly that this made it into the court system.”
Mr Entine said the accuser can’t set the ground rules for how he was wronged, which occurred in the Marsh v Baxter court case.
“The fact is there were no actual consequences to Marsh’s farm other than the consequences imposed by his own organic association; he should sue them for arbitrarily taking away his organic certification,” he said.
“Viewed from afar, it seems like this was a calculated attempt by the organic industry to regulate conventional farming out of existence and it failed miserably.
“Frankly, if Marsh had any case, Marsh should be suing his own organics organisation for imposing standards that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
“Only in Australia do you have the organic industry setting up a zero tolerance standard that’s unenforceable and essentially criminalises what goes on in nature all of the time which is bewildering to people watching this issue from half way around the world.”
Zero tolerance for GM continues: NASAA
But NASAA general manager Ben Copeman said his organisation’s position remained unchanged, despite last week’s Appeal Court ruling, and the zero tolerance for GM would continue
“We don’t believe this was about GM or organics but about freedom to farm and the freedom to farm in a manner that you so desire,” he said.
“But you can’t do that at the expense of anyone else and we’ve taken that stance since day one.”
Mr Copeman said if NASAA was to make a public statement on the appeal decision it would be about the positives of organic farming, rather than criticising Mr Baxter or anyone else.
But he said, “you can absolutely guarantee we’ll not be touching the zero tolerance issue any time in the future”.
“That’s not us being dictatorial on GMs; it’s what our members are saying they want,” he said.
Mr Copeman said he had also received feedback from their two biggest organic markets in China, and Korea that they didn’t want that zero tolerance standard changed, while Japan had a similar view.
“They’re adamant of no changes and that any change will be detrimental to these export markets that we’re trying to build up,” he said.
Mr Copeman said he did not want to comment on the framing or characterisation of the Marsh v Baxter or organic v GM issue as a David v Goliath battle.
Last year after the original court judgment went against Mr Marsh, NASAA said - on behalf of all organic producers and consumers – it had “drawn a line in the sand on the issue of GM in the organic food chain because our markets demand a zero tolerance of GM”.
“In addition, both farmers and consumers have the right to choose what they grow and what they eat,” Mr Copeman said.
“We will continue to maintain a zero tolerance approach to GM in organic products until such time as producer and consumer sentiment changes.
“The message from our producers, from our export customers, and from the consumer is that they don’t want GM in organic products at all. We also know that our biggest grain markets do not want GM in their conventional food chains and have zero tolerance to GM contamination.”
Mr Entine, who is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, believes the framing of the public debate over the organic industry and biotech as a David v Goliath battle is “getting increasingly more absurd by the year”.
The Genetic Literacy Project is small independently funded organisation with no connections to the human or plant biotech industry.
“Big organic is a $100 billion dollar plus industry and it’s very highly concentrated,” he said.
“The more they can demonise conventional agriculture and GMOs the more they prosper, so it’s in their self-interest to spread misinformation and disinformation.
“And in cases like Marsh v Baxter they always try and create a sense that the organic farmers are somehow the little guys fighting big corporate agriculture but that’s not the case with this issue or in general.”
Mr Entine said he was not “pro-GMO” but a journalist who runs a global information hub and science outreach website – the Genetic Literacy Project – that’s focussed on agricultural biotechnology.
He said his website recognised and respected science while trying to ensure that biotechnology is not unnecessarily demonised and understood for its practical purposes.
Mr Entine said GM was a tool that can be used to develop drugs and in farming applications but was often misunderstood.
“I definitely do believe there is an anti-GM camp; ones who are ideologically opposed to the very concept of genetic modification,” he said.
“But the other side is not pro-GM - they are scientists and I consider myself in that kind of category.
“I’m looking at the empirical data the best that I can interpret it and the best that mainstream science can interpret it and let the facts fall where they may.
“I hate this kind of pro-GM label.
“It’s a demonisation tactic, a branding tactic, and that’s really infuriating.
“If I could do anything while I’m here it’s to engage in a proper discussion about biotechnology in farming and food in a positive context.
“I’m a science communicator and that’s what I do but won’t take any money for doing it."