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WA organic farmer loses court battle with GM farming neighbour

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

May 30, 2014

In a landmark judgement, the West Australian Supreme Court has ruled against an action brought by an organic farmer against his neighbour for the economic loss he sustained after losing part of his organic certification when he found GM canola from the farm next door growing in his field.

In 2010, Steve Marsh lost his organic certification on part of his property from NASAA (the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia) for 3 years as a result of reporting to NASAA that he had found GM (genetically-modified) canola growing in his field. The canola was alleged to have blown in from his neighbour, Michael Baxter’s farm as a result of his harvesting practice called ‘swathing’, where cut canola is laid down in rows to dry.

Canola crop at Binalong Photo jemasmith

Canola crop at Binalong Photo jemasmith

The WA Supreme Court found that Baxter could not be held responsible as he had grown his lawful GM canola in a conventional way.

The ruling will raise anger around the world from those who are against GMOs for a variety of reasons – who believe that their safety is unproven and who don’t like the control that big GM seed companies can exert over agri-business and the grain seed market.

However, there are several factors that make this Australian decision unique. First, NASAA has a different organic certification standard than similar USA or European bodies. NASAA’s Clause 3.2 states that:

“Even where evidence of GMOs is not detected in finished organic product, the deliberate or negligent exposure of organic production systems or finished products to GMOs is outside organic production principles.”

This contrasts with other international bodies which have a tolerance threshold before organic certification is lost – 5% in the USA and 0.9% in Europe, and means that Marsh would have been unlikely to lose his organic certification if his farm had been in another country. The judgement also notes that NASAA:

“looks to have acted well beyond the scope of its contractual rights with the Marshes in decertifying 70% of Eagle Rest (paddocks 7 to 13) on 29 December 2010.”

Second, the judgement noted that the GM canola swathes blew into an area growing oats, wheat, spelt and rye and not a non-GM or organic canola crop, so there was no possible cross pollination or contamination.

Third, the judgement noted that in late 2010 when Marsh first found, and then reported to NASAA that there were 245 wind-blown swathes of GM canola on his property that he made no effort to gather up and remove them, nor asked Baxter to do so. In fact he had said that he wanted them to remain there, which they did until April 2011. Despite this, only 8 pioneer canola plants were found growing in the following season.

You can read the full judgement on the WA Supreme Court website

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