Organic farmer Steve Marsh fights the GM monster

January 31, 2014
Rally against Monsanto in Perth, May last year. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

“Steve's case is really a case about all of us,” renowned Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva said in support of organic farmer Steve Marsh.

It is about the right to “have the freedom to eat healthy, safe organic food”.

Marsh lives in Kojanup in Western Australia, and is embroiled in a landmark “David v Goliath” legal case about the effects of genetically modified (GM) crops on his farm.

In 2010, his neighbour Michael Baxter started growing GM canola. The same year, shortly after harvest, a strong wind blew stalks and seed heads from the GM canola onto Marsh’s farm.

More than 15 years ago, Marsh started down the road of organic farming. But he lost organic certification for 70% of his farm in one fell swoop after self-sown GM canola started growing on his land.

This happened the first season after the WA government approved GM canola for commercial use on farms.

The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), which is responsible for organic certification, has a zero tolerance policy on GM crops. To be certified organic, there must be zero presence of genetically engineered plants on the farm

“There was evidence of GM seed growing on his property,” NASAA’s Jan Denham told the Australian last year.

“We know that was not his fault, that it was not deliberate. But that is not the issue.

“NASAA's national certification standards and international export standards clearly state that ‘any GM organism is prohibited’ [on an organic farm] so [Marsh] had to be decertified because there was clear evidence of contamination of genetically engineered canola on his place.”

Supporters of GM technology, such as former agriculture minister Terry Redman, blame organic standards for being too strict.

Redman wrote to Marsh in 2010: “The threshold for accidental presence in organic crops is an important issue which needs to be addressed to enable coexistence.”

He said that zero-tolerance for GM in organic crops is “unrealistic”.

However, Scott Kinnear from the Safe Food Foundation told Green Left Weekly that it is the right of the organic standards bodies to set their own standards.

Kinnear said a zero-tolerance threshold, in relation to particular diseases for instance, is not unheard of when classifying grains in circumstances unrelated to organic certification.

In any case, he said, “organic standards have been around a lot longer than GM crops”.

The loss of his organic certification was a big financial blow to Marsh, leaving him with no choice but to sue his neighbour and lifelong friend. Both farmers are well regarded in the community and both come from families that have farmed the region for generations. The case is due to start on February 10.

There are well-established common law provisions in agriculture that give legal protection to farmers from their neighbours over-spraying or contaminating crops with diseases. However, there are no provisions yet relating to GM pollution.

This has become a landmark case, which will set a precedent on GM pollution. It could well be the first case in the world where an organic farmer is taking legal action over GM pollution.

GM giant Monsanto initially backed its client, Baxter. But Kinnear said it seems they have withdrawn support, and there is no evidence that Monsanto is giving material support to Baxter.

The Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) is supporting Baxter with media and a fighting fund. PGA spokesperson Sheldon Mumby told GLW that Monsanto is not supporting Baxter or the PGA and has no involvement in the case. Mumby presents the case as simply being a matter of one farmer suing another.

Nevertheless, the case will have an internationally significant impact in relation to the rights of farmers to choose to grow organic produce and the rights of customers to choose non-GM food.

A wide range of environmentalists, farmers and chefs are coming out in support of Marsh.

Gardening Australia presenter Costa Georgiadis appeared in a promotional video for Marsh. He said: “Steve Marsh may be in Western Australia, but he's actually in your pantry, in your fridge, in your local supermarket, wherever and whenever you put something in your mouth.”

This is because as soon as GM crops are allowed to be commercially grown, contamination is inevitable. Kinnear said: “If we lose this case, you can kiss goodbye to our right to eat organic food.”

The Socialist Alliance candidate for the expected WA Senate re-election, Chris Jenkins, said: “It is not possible for GM and non-GM crops to coexist separately. As a community, we have to choose one or the other.

“If you asked the people, most people would choose GM-free. Instead of deciding democratically, governments and corporations are imposing the GM option on us. That is why we are supporting Steve Marsh.''

Shiva said: “This is a system of food dictatorship. We've got to stop before it is too late.”

[Steve Marsh can be supported via the Steve Marsh Benefit Fund.]

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