OPINION: AS Schopenhauer once said, "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
What is now self-evident from the recent landmark judgment in Marsh v Baxter is that the rabid bleatings of the anti-GM lobby regarding the alleged evils of genetically modified (GM) crops have been shown to be nothing more than scaremongering.
The case involved neighbouring WA farmers, Steve Marsh and Michael Baxter, who have been in dispute since Baxter planted a crop of GM canola in 2010.
An oft quoted legal axiom says that if you don't have the law, you argue the facts; if you don't have the facts, you argue the law. But if the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.
Well pounding the table and yelling like hell has been the modus operandi of anti-GM lobby groups for years. But they were collectively unable, despite their best efforts before the trial, to manipulate the message or hide behind their junk science as Justice Kenneth James Martin carefully considered the facts as they were presented to him.
But facts are pesky things. Nor does the truth come naturally to extremist groups, given their familiarity with histrionics, spin and propaganda.
In summary, Justice Martin determined that: Mr Baxter’s conduct in planting Roundup Ready (RR) canola was entirely lawful and done in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations; the evidence was overwhelmingly to the effect that RR canola is ‘an entirely benign subject matter’; Marsh did not even seek to prove that the RR canola seeds were toxic, harmful or otherwise dangerous to humans, animals or to land; RR canola does not impose any environmental or food safety risks, even if grazed upon by livestock; notwithstanding the widespread history of RR canola production and consumption, there are no reports establishing the product as exhibiting harmful or toxic substances; the prospects of genetic transfer between the two properties of the RR canola was negligible, particularly in circumstances where Marsh had never grown a canola crop on his property; and finally, he was not presented with any evidence about the benefits of organically grown produce other than the possibly higher prices they achieve when sold on that labelled basis.
The paucity of evidence on the evils of GM crops was laid bare. In its simplest terms, Justice Martin expressed the view that it is difficult to see how a paddock can be contaminated "by the incursion of a wholly benign substance".
A decision was obviously made at an early stage of preparing this matter for trial that Marsh would be unable to rely upon any expert evidence that would show actual physical contamination of his property.
In fact, Marsh’s leading expert deliberately declined to answer a question posed to him by Marsh’s solicitors in relation to whether "the existence and extent of any risks to human health or the environment from GM crops are presently a matter of debate amongst relevantly qualified scientists?"
This was a case that should never have left the starting gate, but powerful forces have been in action behind the scenes, pushing this to its inevitable climax. The judgment makes it clear that His Honour was of a mind that there were ‘unseen hands at work’ in relation to the manner in which Marsh dealt with his neighbour once the GM crop was planted.
Also, Justice Martin was particularly critical of Marsh’s conduct once he became aware of the presence of the RR canola on his property. It took four months from when the canola swathes entered his paddocks before they were gathered up by him and removed.
This is hardly the conduct of someone trying to mitigate their loss/damage and as the judge observed, the relevant canola swathes were afforded "the status of infamous celebrities – fenced off and then made the subject of media releases or general publicity."
The real irony of this case is that if Mr Marsh had joined the organic certifying company that deregistered his property (NASAA Certified Organic Pty Ltd (NCO)) to the proceeding, NCO would have been the party that was ultimately found to be negligent. The judge concluded that the organic decertification of Marsh’s property was unsupportable by a proper application of the relevant NASAA Organic Standards and that it was a gross overreaction by NCO.
This matter has always been more about zealotry and ideology than broad acre agricultural practises. This is plainly evident from the fact that six weeks of Supreme Court hearing time was taken up over a dispute where the damages sought were only $85,000. This amount needs to be considered in conjunction with the fact that the parties would have collectively spent in excess of $3 million to complete the trial.
In a case of careful what you wish for, the alleged GM test case has backfired and the result is not what the anti-GM lobby groups expected. When given the clear opportunity to explain to the world the much-trumpeted virtues of their crusade, they blinked and squibbed it.
Trent Thorne is a Brisbane-based agribusiness lawyer.