Landmark case spotlights GM issues

03 Feb, 2014 01:00 AM
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Despite negative press around the Marsh v Baxter case, the rate of GM canola adoption has increased nationally.
GM and non-GM canola can be grown side-by-side successfully and productively
Despite negative press around the Marsh v Baxter case, the rate of GM canola adoption has increased nationally.

THE landmark legal challenge by organic farmer Steve Marsh against his genetically modified (GM) canola producer neighbour, Michael Baxter, is set to answer some key questions about accepted farming practices and practical property rights.

The high profile test case is due to commence on February 10 in the Western Australian Supreme Court, with three weeks scheduled for trial.

Mr Marsh is claiming financial compensation - for an amount yet to be disclosed - after about 70 per cent of his 478 hectare farm was decertified, after being allegedly contaminated by swathed GM canola material in November 2010.

At the time, Mr Marsh’s Kojonup property was certified organic by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), which has a zero tolerance for GM crop.

Slater and Gordon lawyers are representing Mr Marsh pro bono, believing the case has broad public interest, while Mr Baxter’s solicitors are Bradley Bayly Legal. Mr Marsh has also gained strong public backing from other interest groups such as the Safe Food Foundation.

One of the trial’s key elements will be the presentation of evidence to ascertain how the swathed GM canola actually landed on Mr Marsh’s property, Eagle Rest, and where it originated from, with some material allegedly landing 1.5 kilometres inside the boundary fence line. The contents of an undisclosed report by the WA Department of Agriculture into the circumstances of the alleged contamination are expected to be revealed in court.

In contrast, the Department conducted tests and released findings into an alleged contamination in November 2011 on the Cunderdin farm of the Greens' federal candidate for Durack, Ian James, which found no GM seeds were present.

With the legal battle likely to produce a concerted social media campaign by anti-GM lobbyists, key grains sector stakeholders believe the central issues are largely unrelated to popular concerns over the safety of GM technology and they’ll instead focus on genuine property rights issues and NASAA’s tight certification standards.

Since the issue first became public in late 2010, Mr Baxter has been largely shielded from making media comment relating specifically to the trial’s central legal issues.

But in May 2011, he broke his silence and spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media about his intention to re-plant GM canola that season on his farm “Seven Oaks” - despite legal threats from his neighbour - due to the technology’s success at improving his on-farm weed control strategy.

Throughout the ordeal, Mr Baxter has been supported by the Pastoralists and Graziers’ Association of WA, with Western Graingrowers president and Cunderdin grower John Snooke handling the majority of public comment. Mr Snooke has backed farmers’ rights to access GM technology while being critical of NASAA’s zero tolerance rule.

However, Mr Marsh and his supporters are motivated by a firm belief that existing common law is insufficient to protect those farmers who want to remain GM-free.

In a video released last week, the Kojonup organic farmer said defending himself in the courts has proven to be a very expensive exercise.

“The problem we’ve found is you lose a large part of your income and then it costs you so much to take it to courts; particularly in a case like this where your opponents are very well organised and very well resourced,” he said.

“It’s been a huge relief for Safe Food (Foundation) and others to come in and support us, and obviously it shows the high level of concern in the industry.”

Pro-GM supporters also believe the case may set unwelcome precedents or increase public doubt, resulting in greater regulations around the approval of future GM crops in Australia.

In April 2013, the Court permitted the Baxters to plant GM canola at distances greater than 300m from Mr Marsh’s property provided that the Baxters undertook not to harvest the GM canola by swathing. In June, the WA Supreme Court rejected Mr Marsh’s application for an injunction to stop the Baxters growing GM canola - which has been declared safe by Australian and international regulators - within 400 metres of his organic farm for the 2013 season.

Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Martin said in a statement that he had evaluated the strength of the plaintiff's case in principle as being “an arguable case, not necessarily a strong or overwhelming case, to take to trial”.

Grain Producers Australia chairman Andrew Weidemann says he expects the Marsh v Baxter trial to focus on issues around organic certification processes.

He said the internationally accepted organic certification standard allows for a 0.9pc adventitious presence for GM crop material.

Mr Weidemann said the common view amongst grains industry stakeholders was that organic certification bodies need similar, reasonable thresholds in place to be fair.

“Questions will certainly be asked around the certification body not having a process in place to manage these things, without impacting on the grower negatively,” he said.

Mr Weidemann said the upcoming trial was anything but a 'David and Goliath battle' with Mr Marsh as victim. He said in fact, Mr Baxter was the one being sued and forced to bear the financial and emotional costs, and wasn’t being supported by Monsanto.

In contrast, he said Mr Marsh was receiving support from the anti-GM and pro-organic movements, who are raising funds to help sue his lifelong neighbour.

“At the end of the day this has nothing to do with Monsanto and is a case between two growers; the rest is just a big media beat up,” Mr Weidemann said.

He said organic associations should devise protocols that encourage coexistence, instead of having an impractical zero tolerance of GM canola.

Mr Weidemann said despite negative press around the Marsh v Baxter case, the rate of GM canola adoption has increased nationally over the past two seasons, with evidence of improved yields and grain quality, especially oil content.

“Certainly as time has gone on, canola growers have seen increased benefits from breeding programs that are creating varieties which are proving to be more suitable for the Australian environment,” he said.

CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey said planting of GM canola in WA went up 38pc from 2012 to 2013.

Mr Cossey said commodity segregation is not unique to GM crops and is managed in different forms across the entire agricultural supply chain.

He said farmers regularly grow and successfully keep separate multiple varieties and qualities of different grain crops, within practical industry thresholds.

“GM and non-GM canola can be grown side-by-side successfully and productively without creating marketing issues,” he said.

“Innovation and the adoption of safe, effective technologies is crucial to the long term sustainability and profitability of Australian agriculture.”

FarmOnline
Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

Mug
3/02/2014 5:52:41 AM

What puzzles me is that farmers seem comfortable to sell their souls to the Monsanto's of the world. Once they lose control--------game over. Back to peasantry.
robinj
3/02/2014 7:39:38 AM

a farmer should be allowed to grow any crop on his property, BUT should that crop infringe on the neighbours land and affect the neighbours status no matter what it is he should be penalised. many GM crops are difficult to control when wild and will continue to spread. The govt should regal;ate and place the responsibility back on the seller i.e. monsato and make them liable for the contamination debt the crop incurs.
Garry
3/02/2014 8:22:55 AM

All my my thoughts are with the Baxters stay strong it's always the minority with the loudest voices. Just letting you know there is plenty of support for you.
Had Enough Huek
3/02/2014 9:22:27 AM

Mug, I can't agree with you mate. If a large company is willing to invest the money in to R&D to create a product that adds value to a farmer then why is the farmer selling his soul to use that product? Do you drive a car? Are you selling your soul every time you fill up at the gas station adding to the sales of gasoline which has been refined by a multinational. I say not and its unfair to pick on farmers rights to use a product that has been deemed safe by the OGTR. My support is 100% behind the Baxter's it makes me sick to think what stress this farming family must be under now.
cv
3/02/2014 10:36:16 AM

Had Enough Huek, what about the Marsh’s right not to have GM crops on their land? If my cattle came wondering onto your property you’d have the right to tell me to get them off your land. This is no different, only once the GM crops have taken root there is no way to get them off. I really can't understand why the pro GM mob feel the need to push GM onto people who don't want it!
Mug
3/02/2014 11:28:16 AM

Had Enough Heuk. If only the world was as open and honest as yourself. The sad reality is that these people are trying to push something that is not so much for the farmer but for the faceless shareholder. Frankly I do not trust them and once GM is out there in many forms there will be no going back. The production of good wholesome food is a VERY complex task. I should know as I have a family member involved in nutrition and currently modern foods lack all sorts of properties they had in the past. It has to do with breeding, fertility and time. Fast is not necessarily good for us.
Had Enough Huek
3/02/2014 12:59:58 PM

CV, If Marsh's organic certifer NASAA had a realistic tolerance of .005% even rather than zero the situation could of been resolved. Marsh would have kept his organic status and Baxter and Marsh could of worked together to remove the canola plants from the property which would not have been unachievable. It is the zero level which is the problem what happens if a bird drops some GM canola seed from 25km's away and it germinates in an organic farmers crop. Will Slater and Gordon go pro bono to sue bird??
Fran Murrell
3/02/2014 1:34:52 PM

GM canola was made legal in WA by intense pressure being put by the Government on a handful of pollies who had concerns. Public and farmer opposition to the growing of GM was ignored. Contrary to what is claimed in this article GM has not 'been proved safe' by national and international regulators it has been allowed to be sold despite serious concerns. The FDAs own scientists expressed doubt about the safety of GM food. The promoters of GM crops are seriously misleading the public. This article details what is going on. http://www.madge.org.au/Docs/Fran -Murrell.pdf
David Harrison
3/02/2014 3:43:23 PM

'the internationally accepted organic certification standard allows for a 0.9pc adventitious presence for GM crop material.' This is tantamount to admitting they have no control over their product. Does this mean the organic farmer can retain some of this seed for replanting, without penalty from Monsanto? I certainly don't think so. GM advocates expect others to tolerate GM presence in their crops, but do not tolerate the propagation of GM tainted seed. Bit like wanting your cake and eating it too, wouldn't you agree?
X Ag Socialist
3/02/2014 4:16:08 PM

Mug who said you cant go back ?
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