It has been a while coming, but Steve Marsh — the Kojonup farmer who lost his organic certification last year because of GM contamination — is now in the final stages of preparing a writ for a “common law” battle with his neighbour and childhood friend Michael Baxter.

GM canola from Baxter’s farm blew onto Marsh’s property and started sprouting, despite assurances given at a Katanning meeting hosted by the WA Department of Agriculture (DAFWA) in August last year.

In a landmark case, Marsh and his lawyers from Slater and Gordon are now taking legal action to try to recoup some of his financial losses since the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA) decertified his farm in December 2010.

Marsh told 3rd Degree he hoped legislation would be introduced to “protect the traditional rights of non-GM farmers”. He hoped a fund would be set up, levied against the GM industry with money contributed either by “the biotech companies themselves or the GM farmers”, and made available to help non-GM farmers deal with the loss of income and the clean-up costs when contamination occurred.

Marsh described the effect the case has had on his small community as “very sad”. Baxter declined to comment to 3rd Degree.

DAFWA’s approach to the problems such as the Marsh/Baxter case to-date has centred on encouraging conversation. This has taken the form of the establishment of a register of “Sensitive Sites” that it says “may include certified organic, certified biodynamic, aquaculture, and viticulture” properties.

The purpose of the registering as a Sensitive Site seems to be mainly about granting the department permission to share information about privately owned farms to let other farmers know which side of the GM fence their neighbours are on.

While the department has actively encouraged farmers to join the register it is yet to be seen whether registration affords any actual, practical or financial protection to non-GM farmers.

Documents obtained through an FOI request lodged by 3rd Degree reveal that after the Katanning meeting DAFWA director general Rob Delane told colleagues inside the department they “needed to be proactive in encouraging all producers to register “Sensitive Land Sites” in DAFWA’s Client Resource Information System (CRIS)” and for this information to be easily accessible via the internet.

While prioritising the free flow of communication sounds good, the documents obtained through FOI showed just how hard Marsh’s battle has been to extract information from DAFWA.

As his concerns (and the young GM plants on his property) were growing late last year, he wrote to DAFWA and asked why legal issues about contamination of neighbours’ land hadn’t been resolved before the release of GM canola.

In a letter dated November 10, 2011, he asked DAFWA for information about:

  1. A toxicology report on GM, Monsanto’s Safety Data Report and any independent reports on GM
  2. DAFWA trial results including failed trials
  3. The percentage level Monsanto will pursue for royalties in grains
  4. How DAFWA will maintain 0.5 per cent of contamination or less in foundation seed?
  5. Why didn’t Minister Redman and DAFWA consult with our organic grains industry?
  6. Why isn’t it mandatory for GM growers to notify all their neighbours?
  7. How is DAFWA going to keep our integrity of organic seed when GM cereals and legumes are released?
  8. Maintaining zero tolerance for certified organic products as many products supplied to the health industry are for people with serious health conditions.

But he didn’t get a satisfactory answer, instead he was simply forwarded a copy of a research report on the survival of canola seeds in a range of habitats by a Victorian academic dated April 2002.

In September,  Marsh again asked DAFWA several questions about procedures to deal with accidental presence of GM material on non-GM properties. DAFWA’s response reiterated the merits of its Sensitive Sites WA service, and recommended discussion between neighbours as the “best way to manage coexistence”.

Marsh wrote that he thought DAFWA would have procedures to deal with GM contamination of organic and biodynamic farms. And DAFWA parried with a “lack of transparency and clarity in the procedures laid out by NASAA and the other organic/biodynamic certifiers in the decertification and recertification process” made this impossible, and urged Mr Marsh to discuss the standards with NASAA.

DAFWA said Australia’s organic standard for accidental presence of GM material in organic products was more stringent than organic standards in Australia’s main organic export markets. It added that “it is hard to understand why an industry would choose to have ambiguous and excessively constraining standards. Nor why an industry would choose to have standards that make products less competitive”.

Marsh asked DAFWA if any other GM canola contamination among non-GM farms in WA in the 2010-2011 season had occurred. DAFWA said one other case of movement of GM plant material between properties in the 2010 season occurred, and the department provided advice to the growers involved and the case was resolved satisfactorily for both growers.

Marsh asked if DAFWA knew of any GM canola contamination within the supply chain in the 2010-11 season. DAFWA replied that Cooperative Bulk Handling (CBH) had advised it that: “Such was the extent of the testing regime that of the 25,000 deliveries of non-GM canola to be received this harvest, the accidental presence in a single load of non-GM canola was detected allowing the load to be isolated and managed. Further testing is being conducted on this load to ascertain the actual level of GM canola.”

Last October NASAA’s chairman and DAFWA representatives discussed the merits of the Australian organic industry adopting a threshold of 0.1% of accidental presence of GM, which DAFWA said could provide marketing advantage to Australian organic growers. NASAA advised there were “not great impediments to adoption of common approach but the common approached was yet to be developed.”

*This article is the latest in a 10-part 3rd Degree investigative series into the GM industry in Western Australia and the links between the WA government and Monsanto