The case of Steve Marsh, the organic farmer who lost organic certification over GM contamination, may set a crucial precedent and ultimately determine the future of farming in Australia, New Zealand and beyond.

Rules on genetically modified food are unfair to farmers


The Australian, March 3, 2014

FARMERS have gates and fences for a reason. It's their right to determine what they do with their land, and trespassers or stray animals are unwelcome.

But does that extend to preventing someone contaminating their crop and costing them contracts and much of their livelihood?

Most Australian farmers grow GM-free food and get premium income for it, because it is what consumers want. A poll released last month by EMC revealed that 50 per cent of Australians disapprove of the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in Australia.

But the farmers' choice to grow GM-free can be affected by their neighbours' choices, because of the lack of protection rules in Australia. The current non-binding recommendation guidelines for managing GM canola cultivation in Western Australia are very weak and only recommend a minimum of 5m separation between a GM and non-GM canola field.

Every farmer knows that such a small buffer zone cannot prevent GM contamination. And there is no farmer-protection legislation when genetic contamination occurs.

Biotech companies have a no-liability contract with GM farmers (Monsanto calls it a Technology Stewardship Agreement) to protect themselves and they regularly sue contaminated farmers in North America for patent infringement. They haven't done it in Australia yet, but nothing prevents them doing so in the future.

This situation is insane, unfair, and generates conflicts.

A landmark trial under way in the WA Supreme Court sees farmer against farmer, neighbour against neighbour, all because of GM crops.

Believed to be the first of its kind in the world, it's a case that is being followed by citizens, lawyers, food businesses, the agriculture industry, and biotech companies in Australia, Europe, North America and elsewhere.

It began when WA farmer Steve Marsh lost his organic certification on 70 per cent of his farm -- and most of his livelihood -- after his land was contaminated by GM canola patented by Monsanto and grown in the adjacent property.

His only avenue to protect his right to grow what he chooses was to sue his neighbour for his losses in a civil negligence case, despite the risk and expense.

His case may set a precedent for future cases of GM contamination and ultimately determine the future of farming in Australia, New Zealand and beyond -- and it is not only about organic farming. In January 2011, Bob Mackley, a conventional grain farmer at Duchembegarra, Victoria, faced genetic contamination. He was not able to sell canola from that land as GM-free any more and had to change rotations and the herbicide regime and cover extra clean-up costs.

If Marsh loses, there will be no effective compensation system for organic and conventional farmers who suffer financial losses as a result of ineffective coexistence. The legal precedent established will shift the economic burden of GM farming from those who choose GM to those who don't.

We need to protect our farmers from GM contamination as it could result in organic and conventional farmers getting lower returns, because GM canola achieves a lower price than conventional canola. Contaminated farmers could also be liable for contaminating deliveries, shipments and markets.

The inability to prevent GM contamination in Australia may also put major export markets, such as Europe, at risk.

No one wants to see farmers battling fellow farmers and neighbours in the courts. As contamination is unavoidable, the Safe Food Foundation is calling for a moratorium on all GM crops grown in the open air in Australia.

Specific legislation is also needed in states where GM crops are allowed, to prevent their dissemination, to protect organic and conventional agriculture and food businesses and to facilitate clean-up operations and recalls.

Such legislation should also cover the question of who is financially liable in the case of GM contamination.

Scott Kinnear is founder and director of the Safe Food Foundation.