A court case heard over the last few weeks in the Supreme Court of Western Australia could change the way Australians look at genetically modified, conventional and organic food.

Steve Marsh, an organic farmer hailing from Kojonup, is suing neighbour and childhood friend Michael Baxter for loss of income and organic certification after genetically modified canola plants were found on roughly 70% of his farm. But this case is not fundamentally about the production of organic versus genetically modified foods, and the verdict could have complex and far-reaching consequences for both sides of the argument.

Environmental and anti-GM activist groups have labelled the case a David and Goliath struggle against American biotechnology giant Monsanto — the provider of Baxter’s GM canola seeds — with speculation the company might even be bankrolling his defence.

But the heart of the matter relates to the method of canola harvesting, and whether enough care was taken to prevent the mixing of the plants. Canola is harvested by a method known as “swathing”, which although quick and easy, is also messy; the risk of plant matter being thrown into the air and carried elsewhere is high. This is exactly what Marsh alleges has happened.

Monsanto recommends a buffer zone of “at least five metres” between GM canola and other conventional crops to avoid this sort of thing happening, but Baxter maintained a buffer zone well above the recommendations. After an initial hearing, Baxter agreed to stretch these buffer zones out to 400 metres, but Marsh found GM canola 1.5 kilometres in from his fence.

Many, especially those in the pro-GM camp, are calling for a change in organic certification to allow for small amounts of incidental GM — as in the case of Baxter’s canola being blown onto Marsh’s farm. The European Union is an example. As of September 2003, both conventional and organic food products in the EU may contain up to 0.9% genetically modified content and still be labelled as the former if that “contamination” is accidental or unavoidable.

Still, legislators have been clear in pointing out that the purpose of this threshold is not to create an “acceptable” level of contamination. And indeed, most European organic certifiers have adopted their own, much stricter, thresholds.

But those on the other side of the fence claim that blurring the line between GM and non-GM crops is a cop-out solution that has much more significant and permanent consequences for the consumer.

Ultimately, they argue the verdict of this case could spell the end, or at least the beginning of the end, for 100% GM-free foods in Australia. The Australian grain industry has already adopted the EU’s labelling threshold for conventional produce, which doesn’t leave much choice for the consumer. Organic advocates argue the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia’s zero-tolerance approach to organic certification could be the last vestige of hope for GM-free food in Australia.

To further confuse matters, GM crops are often introduced into a crop rotation because of their decreased reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides. Southern Cross University director of plant science Dr Graham King argues such crops could “possibly have a closer fit to ‘organic'” than conventional, non-GM crops.

Professor Rachel Ankeny, a bioethicist from the University of Adelaide, says the case is mainly about “incompatible farming systems” and reflects the “inadequacy” of labelling and information provision on Australian food products. But, she told Crikey, “this case is far from clear-cut from an ethical point of view”.

GM opponents and proponents have agreed on the need for a legal precedent regarding the matters of this case. Judge Kenneth Martin is expected to hand down his verdict in the coming months.

Peter Fray

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