WESTERN Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert is calling for a national “contamination insurance scheme” to help protect farmers who choose not to plant genetically modified (GM) crops.
Senator Siewert announced she would be tabling a motion in the federal Senate today, aimed at protecting non-GM and organic farmers like Steve Marsh.
Mr Marsh lost a high profile case in the WA Supreme Court last year when the judge comprehensively rejected his attempts to sue his GM canola-growing neighbour Michael Baxter.
The Marshes had claimed $85,000 in alleged damages after GM canola swathes were detected on their organic farm in late 2010, sparking organic decertification on about 70 per cent of the 478-hectare Kojonup farm.
But Justice Ken Martin’s 150-page judgement rejected assertions GM canola was unsafe in dismissing both the Marshes' causes of action in common law negligence and private nuisance.
Justice Martin subsequently awarded costs totalling $804,000 in the defendant’s favour.
That original decision is now being appealed by Mr Marsh and his legal representatives, Slater & Gordon lawyers, with a hearing scheduled to be held March 23 to 25 in the Court of Appeal for the WA Supreme Court.
But Senator Siewert said Mr Marsh “recently incurred enormous financial costs as a result of contamination from a neighbouring GM canola farmer”.
“My motion will call on the federal government to implement a national contamination insurance scheme that protects non-GM farmers like Steve Marsh from future contamination,” she said.
“The proposed scheme would be funded through GM crop levies.
“Farmers in WA like Steve Marsh offer choice for Australian consumers and the growing international market, they deserve infrastructure to protect them if the current laws are failing to defend them.”
Ms Siewert said her motion would also call on the WA government to retain its framework that keeps GMO-free areas within WA – the GM Crops Free Areas Act.
“Attempts to repeal the Act are driven by a pro-GMO Minister who is not interested in fairness for non-GMO farmers who choose not to grow genetically modified crops,” she said.
“With no safe zones for non-GMO/organic farmers, cases like Steve Marsh will become more frequent, making life near impossible for farmers that are already struggling.
“Until there is an adequate scientific understanding of their long term impact on the environment, human and animal health, we must maintain and improve infrastructure to assure non-GMO farmers are protected.
“This is especially the case whilst there is the absence of strong, transparent, precautionary regulatory and monitoring system which prevents GMO contamination in the first place.
“Farmers should be able to farm in the way that they want to - it is time to make coexistence sustainable in WA.”
Mr Marsh’s campaign around the legal test case questioned the safety of GM crops and was supported by the Safe Food Foundation (SFF), which stated it had had raised $750,000 through public donations at the time of trial 12 months ago.
Calls for further public donations to assist the Marsh have continued since the decision was handed down.
The judgment said Mr Baxter “was not to be held responsible as a broad acre farmer merely for growing a lawful GM crop and choosing to adopt a harvest methodology (swathing) which was entirely orthodox in its implementation”.
The judgement was also highly critical of processes used by Mr Marsh’s organic certifier, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, and its zero tolerance for GM crops.
GM 'safe': CropLife
CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey said Justice Martin’s judgment was clear that the decertification of the organic farmer’s property by NASA was wrong.
Mr Cossey said coexistence in farming already existed and creating conflict where there is none does not help the nation’s farmers or Australian agriculture more broadly.
He said Senator Siewert’s motion seemed to be based on a “narrow political agenda to create unnecessary conflict between farmers rather than support the longstanding principles of coexistence in agriculture”.
“Such legislation would only serve to stifle the future of Australian agricultural research, innovation and competitiveness,” he said.
“It also ignores the significant agronomic, economic and environmental benefits of GM crops and the rights of Australian farmers to choose what approved crops they want to grow on their own farms.
“It would impose a costly mandate on farmers, technology providers and Australia’s own publicly funded researchers, with no identifiable societal benefit.”
Mr Cossey said GM Crops were the most tested food technology in human history underpinned by more than 30 years of scientific research, extensive testing and independently verified evidence.
He said the development, planting and consumption of an approved GM crop, “is safe”.
“Every legitimate scientific institution in the world, including the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the Australian Academy of Science has concluded that GM crops are as safe as their conventional counterparts,” he said.
“All GM crops approved by the Gene Technology Regulator for commercial release in Australia are as safe as their conventional (non-GM) counterparts.
“Globally, over one billion acres of GM crops have been cultivated since 1996, over three trillion meals containing GM food ingredients have been consumed, and not a single incident of harm to human health or the environment has been identified or recorded.”
Mr Cossey said the overwhelming long-term scientific consensus on the independent evidence “hasn’t convinced Senator Siewert because it doesn’t fit her political agenda”.
“The hypocrisy of someone that has demanded that governments listen to and act upon the science of climate change and then demand that government’s ignore or act against the science of agricultural biotechnology is an example of astonishing cognitive dissonance,” he said.
“Senator Siewert’s motion is a misplaced activist solution looking for a non-existent problem.
“For Australian farmers to play their part in feeding nine billion people by 2050, in the face of a changing climate and global economic uncertainty, motions such as this must be vigorously opposed for its flawed political motives and irrational foundations.
“Real farmer protection lies in opposition to this kind of debate and the confused rhetoric that comes with it.
”Thankfully there are government’s such as the current WA government that develop agricultural public policy based on science and evidence not intellectually weak activist agendas that Senator Siewert would have them pursue,” he said.
'Deeply cynical' about Greens
South Australian Liberal Senator Sean Edwards said he was “deeply cynical” about the Greens’ timing on the matter.
“They didn’t like the judge’s finding in the original decision and so this looks a lot like judicial lobbying three weeks out from an appeal hearing,” he said.
“I understand the Safe Food Foundation is actively funding Mr Marsh’s case with many hundreds of thousands of dollars and it’s unclear to me whether he’s ultimately suffered any losses at all.
“The Greens’ fear mongering over GMO technology may play well to their constituency but it defies science and their agenda limits farmers’ economic potential.
“To simply refer to lack of adequacy in the science is preposterous – the science supports this technology.
“But if they feel they know something that the World Health Organisation and the most sophisticated regulatory systems in the world do not, then I’m all ears,” he said.
“If there is a skerrick of evidence that world health authorities are wrong then the Greens need to table it or stop prothletising with their mistruths and innuendo.”
WA Agriculture Minister Ken Baston said the GM Crops Free Areas Act wasn’t about the safety of GM crops - which was governed by a federal Act – and was simply a marketing-based act.
Mr Baston said when the Act was introduced in 2003, one of its aims was to prevent WA growers from planting a GM crop before markets or the grain industry was ready.
But he said WA had been successfully growing and segregating GM canola for four years and the WA grains industry was now “sufficiently sophisticated and mature to be able to handle these issues on its own”.
“I believe industry is also better placed than government to make judgements on market acceptance,” he said.
“In considering a repeal of this Act I have listened to industry, who by large are calling for its repeal, and I have also consulted with grain marketers who are involved in our international markets as part of their daily business.”
Mr Baston said he also agreed that farmers should be able to farm in the way that they wanted to and for sustainable co-existence in WA.
“It is important that growers have the opportunity to decide what to produce on their properties that best fits their production system in order for the WA grains industry to be internationally competitive,” he said.
“Within the framework and controls that exist for growing GM crops in Australia, every grower should have the right to select the production system that works for their personal and business values.
“GM crops are one available tool in the plant breeding toolbox to enable researchers to develop climate resilient crop varieties, improved quality and public health benefits.”
Senator Siewert's motion reads:
I give notice that on the next day of sitting, I will move that:
a) Notes the intention of the WA State Government to review of WA’s Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act 2003; and
b) Calls on the WA State Government to retain the legislative framework that creates GMO-free areas within WA.
c) Notes the enormous financial costs, including court fees and loss of income, that Steve Marsh has incurred after having his organic farm contaminated by GM canola from a neighbouring farm; and
d) Calls on the Federal Government to facilitate the creation of a national contamination insurance scheme that ensures that the clean-up and loss of income costs associated with cleaning up a GMO contamination is funded by levies on GM crops.