‘World’s first’ farmer trial over GM crop contamination begins in Australia

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A landmark legal battle between two farmers over alleged GM contamination has started in the Western Australian Supreme Court. The case is expected to determine GM farmers’ liability if their crops affect neighboring territories.

The globally monitored legal battle involves local farmer Steve  Marsh who sued his neighbor Michael Baxter for negligence over  the alleged contamination of the land that Marsh used for growing  organic oat and wheat crops at Kojonup, 250 km south-east of  Perth, Western Australia.

Lawyers say it is the world’s first trial over GM contamination  and will set a precedent for future cases.

As far as we know, this is the first court case of its type  anywhere in the world,” said Marsh’s representative Mark  Walter, a lawyer at Slater and Gordon’s Commercial and Project  Litigation. The case could have an impact on the conventional  farming industry and consumers, he said, as cited by the WAtoday  news website.

It will test the legal rights of farmers to choose how and what  they farm on their land, Walter pointed out.

It is important that farmers retain their rights to farm  GM-free food as this in turn will protect consumers’ ability to  purchase GM-free food,” he said.

The trial is expected to last for three weeks and is likely to  lead to regulations outlining boundaries between GM and organic  farms, potentially reducing the land available for cultivation,  experts said. It could also change Australia’s zero tolerance  policy for contamination of organic crops.

Organic farmers fear this could lead to a lose-lose situation for  them. If the zero tolerance policy remains in place, they risk  being stripped of their organic certification because of  contamination as GM crops production increases. If the policy is  eased, Australia would lose its position as a strict organic  producer amid the growing popularity of GMO-free food across the  globe.

For the season 2013, West Australia’s growers bought a record 416  tonnes of Roundup Ready canola seed, which is 38 percent more  than the previous year.

‘Reckless’ farming blamed for contagion

Marsh, 49, claims that back in 2010, Baxter’s Roundup Ready  canola seed and swathes were blown by the wind onto his farm,  causing him to lose organic certification on 70 percent of his  land. This cost him an estimated $ 85,000 (about US $76,000) in  financial losses.

At the time of the alleged canola drift, Marsh’s farm was  certified organic by the National Association for Sustainable  Agriculture Australia (NASAA), which has a zero tolerance for GM  material.

Richard Niall, a barrister for Marsh, told the court on Monday  that the situation had had a devastating effect on his client’s  livelihood and that it was Baxter’s fault.

Marsh’s neighbor “was completely indifferent and reckless by  planting genetically modified canola in adjoining paddocks,”   Niall said, as quoted by the Australian Associated Press (AAP).  The famer failed to contain the GM seeds, and “thousands of  them” escaped in the wind onto Marsh’s property, he said.  The lawyer claimed that at the time Baxter planted the canola he  knew the seeds would escape since that was “plainly  foreseeable.”

Baxter, 48, maintains that he observed all the requirements  regarding the buffer zone and informing neighbors when planting  the GM canola – shortly after the Western Australian government  allowed its commercial cultivation in 2010.

The farmer bought the seeds from biotech giant, Monsanto. Marsh’s  supporters also allege that the American corporation is providing  financial aid to Baxter in the legal action – something the  company declined to comment on, saying only that it was not a  party to the case, Reuters reported.

The organic farmer dropped his plans to sue the US firm because  of non-liability contracts it signs with all farmers who buy its  seeds, said Scott Kinnear, director of the Safe Food Foundation,  an organic farming advocacy group which is collecting donations  to help fund Marsh’s suit.

‘Grow a heart, Monsanto!’

An emotional debate around growing GM crops has been going on in  West Australia ever since the first such commercially grown crop  was allowed about four years ago.

The legal battle between the two farmers has added fuel to the  fire, with Marsh’s supporters rallying on Monday outside the  court. A bunch of protesters carried placards that read ‘No to  GMO,’ ‘We want 100 percent organic food,’ and ‘Grow a heart,  Monsanto!’

Supporters of GM farming, such as the Western Australian  Pastoralists and Graziers Association, say that Baxter did  nothing wrong. Just as opponent groups backing Marsh, they are  also collecting donations to cover the GM farmer’s legal costs.

John Snook, Chair of PGA’s western growers, said he was  frustrated by the lack of public support for choice in  agriculture and the advantages of new technologies, reported  Radio Australia.

When you push the alarmism aside, the case is very clear  that Steve Marsh is trying to impose unnecessary conditions on  his neighbor and trying to stop him growing GM canola,” he  was quoted as saying. “So we feel we are on very principled  and solid ground. A legal precedent will be set.