Edge of the Tractor Seat: Aussie GM Test Case Brewing in WA

by Sam Statham
Organic farmer Steve Marsh from near Kojonup in WA had an unexpected Christmas present last year. He was informed by the WA Government that his farm, which was certified organic, had Genetically Modified canola growing on it more than 1.5km inside his property boundary.

The response from his organic certifier, NASAA (the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture in Australia) was swift and clear. In a press release on 3 January, NASAA announced that in line with the Australian Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Products, it had no choice but to decertify the affected areas of the property, indefinitely. Steve therefore will suffer a substantial loss of income for his organic produce.

Steve’s lawyer Richard Huston was appointed in accordance with the recommendations of the WA Government, which states in their fact sheets on GM Canola that the common law is the appropriate manner to pursue damages claims with regard to contamination. Of course, the voice for the farming establishment, the Western Graingrowers Committee, attacked Steve’s claim for damages as “ridiculous”.

As I have been involved in the GM and organic debate in the past, I might weigh in on this. Steve’s claim is not ridiculous at all. What is ridiculous is the way the Howard government set up the approvals process for GM crops a decade ago.

The Gene Technology Act (2000) openly states that it does not take into account economic impacts of GM crops. Lets not get into what it does actually consider, except that Australia follows the US doctrine of “substantial equivalence” in its view of GM food and its risks to consumers and the environment. Therefore, GM canola oil products do not have to be labelled so consumers cant choose to avoid them. The health and safety review process does not take into account the precautionary principle nor require the GM patenters to prove their products’ safety with decent, independent studies. See here  for a submission on this from the Biological Farmers of Australia.

The Gene Technology Act passed the buck onto the State governments. Initially moratoriums were introduced in the mid 2000’s, and these have come to an end in what can only be seen as a “soft launch” of GM cropping after the opposition of the organic industry and other opponents had been defeated by industry PR spin and back room lobbying. I recommend an excellent book if you are interested in how our food choices are formed from closed board rooms, by Associate Professor Richard Hindmarsh, Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith School of Environment, Griffith Univeristy, published 2008, called “Edging Towards BioUtopia: A New Politics of Reordering Life”. You can buy it online at New South Books and read Richard’s blog at //rhindmarshblogg.blogspot.com/

An example of the crushing defeat of political common sense is the seminar organised by me on behalf of the Biological Farmers of Australia in the NSW Parliament House, before the NSW moratorium was ended in 2008, when not one MP turned up at the seminar. The BFA had Australia’s leading scientists and agri-business leaders to present on the risks of ending the moratorium, speaking to an empty auditorium.

Our leaders had already made up their mind that “She’ll be right”. They also beleived, rightly,  that State governments should never have been passed the buck for managing the economic impacts of GM crops, as this is a national issue anyway. In fact, passing the buck to the States simply meant that sooner or later, Australia would be growing GM canola. And now we are.

Since the end of the NSW moratorium on GM, I have seen gales carry windrows of canola hundreds of metres into neighbouring farms. I have seen crops unharvestable and spilling seed onto the ground due to repeated heavy rains, no doubt to be washed over the well herbicided soil onto neighbouring property. I have attended a local Cowra Shire Council meeting asking that the Council at least identify where the GM canola is growing, so that its spread on Council land could be managed. The GM grower, at the same meeting, successfully agrued for Council to keep its head in the sand. As he is only a few km away from me, I am awaiting intently the results of the Steve Marsh case, because even if we do not grow Canola or wheat any more, we have organic sheep. The NASAA decision was based on the new Australian Standard which despite years of government and industry committee reviews, has not abandoned its zero tolerance policy for GM organisms on organic farms.

I am not optimistic for Steve, as the last test case  of Monsanto v Schmeiser in Canada showed that Goliath cannot be beaten using common law. See www.percyschmeiser.com or listen to this mp3 recording from Percy at a meeting in the UK.

I beleive this is a landmark test case for organic farmers, conventional farmers who oppose GM, and consumers now and in the future.

As far as I know, all we can do is support Steve through a fighting fund established for him.

What do you think? Please throw in your two bob’s worth in the comments, and be transparent if you have a barrow to push!