His neighbor and childhood friend contaminates his field with GMO’s
GMOs are at the core of a legal battle between two Australians farmers that were childhood friends and neighbors. The case is also a symbol of the dangers of GMO contamination for non GMO farmers and the defeat of Steve Marsh before the courts is a dramatic turn of events for all those who fight GMOs in Australia.
How GMOs turn childhood friends into enemies[edit | edit source]
Steve Marsh and Michael Baxter used to be friends. They have known each other for ever, as their families own neighboring farmlands, close to Kojonup, in the West of Australia. Today they have become bitter enemies because of GMOs. It all started when Michael Baxter, who had inherited the family farm, decided to plant Monsanto's GM Roundup Ready canola on his farm in 2010. This canola is supposed to be resistant to Monsanto's famous herbicide, Roundup. However, Steve Marsh disagreed heartily with Baxter's views on agriculture and grew organic wheat, that had organic certification.
As soon as he learned that his neighbor had switched to GMO, Steve Marsh warned him that he had already found some of his canola on his farm, that it had probably been carried by the wind, and it was not a problem as long as he grew non GMO products, but now that he had switched to GMOs, it would pose a big risk to Steve Marsh's farm. Indeed the Australian organic certification body does not grant the organic certification if there is some GMO contamination in organic field, however small. He urged his friend to be careful to prevent any GM canola from flying into his neighboring field because if that happened he could lose everything. Unfortunately, Baxter didn't listen and canola seeds flew from his farmland to Marsh's at the end of 2010, and germinated in 2011. This is an illuminating illustration of the dangers of GMO contamination to non GMO farms, and especially organic farms ! This was a terrible blow to Steve Marsh because the presence of the GM canola caused the loss of organic certification on about 70 % of his farm production. Not only did Steve Marsh lose his source of income, but he also lost a friend because then he had no choice but to ask Michael Baxter to repair the damage he had done by letting his GM canola contaminate Marsh's fields.
How justice turned its back on GMO victim Steve Marsh[edit | edit source]
Steve Marsh filed suit in 2014. He demanded $85,000 in damages from Michael Baxter, for the lost income brought about by the contamination of his fields and the decertification of his produce that it had caused. He also asked the court for an injunction to prevent Michael Baxter from growing GM canola in the future. His lawyer argued that as Michael Baxter used the swathing method to harvest the canola, this caused large amounts of GM canola to lay on the ground where it could be blown onto Steve Marsh's farm. Steve Marsh's claim is more than legitimate. GMO farmers should be responsible for preventing the contamination that their GM crops can cause. They should have to try to do everything they can to make sure it doesn't happen. However, Western Australia's Supreme Court ruled against Marsh in May 2014. What's worse, he was sentenced to pay Baxter $804,000 of court costs.
This ruling is dumbfounding. It means that GMO victim farmers are effectively silenced and can't demand justice for GMO contamination because the ruling might actually make their situation worse ! Steve Marsh was brave enough to challenge that decision to the West Australian court of Appeal but it confirmed the initial ruling in September 2014. Steve Marsh finally tried to appeal to Australia's High court but on February 12th, but the High Court declared it refused to take the dispute, thus closing all avenue of appeals for him. This has left Steve Marsh very bitter, having no hope for justice : “We lost our income, practically half our growing income for three years, but it appears that we can’t claim compensation for that, it’s extraordinary”. This decision makes no sense in itself, because anyone can see that Steve Marsh's demands are sensible and that he warned Michael Baxter about the risks to his farm if he let GM canola laying around. This is a clear sign that this trial was very political and that GMO corporations like Monsanto followed it very closely, because their profits depended on it.
Monsanto funded Baxter's court costs[edit | edit source]
The one thing Steve Marsh had managed to get from the courts is to order Michael Baxter to reveal who paid for his legal bills. Indeed, when Steve Marsh was ordered to pay more than $800,000 to Baxter, he asked to know if Baxter had paid for the court costs himself or if he was being funded by somebody else. And that's how Monsanto had to admit that it had been funding the defense of Michael Baxter : “Although we were not a party to the litigation, we respect Michael and Zanthe Baxter’s choice to defend themselves. Their neighbor initiated a legal claim against them when they were responsibly growing a safe and legal crop, as was clearly established in the Supreme Court’s verdict,” Monsanto Australian official Daniel Kruithoff conceded.
“Both farmers were entitled to seek support for this legal dispute so that their arguments could be heard in court. It was only fair that the Baxters received much needed support given the extensive fundraising efforts of Steve Marsh’s supporters. Monsanto Australia contributed to the Baxter’s legal costs to ensure they could defend themselves in court”. How kind and generous of Monsanto to come help Michael Baxter for the sake of equality ! That level of hypocrisy is staggering. Of course, Monsanto rushed in to join Michael Baxter's defense, but not for his sake ! If they were helping anybody, it was themselves. Because a ruling against Baxter would have been a serious setback for the GMO industry in Australia.
The larger issue of GMO regulation in Australia[edit | edit source]
Indeed, this case reflects the larger issue of GMO regulation in Australia and Monsanto's efforts to make sure regulations don't hinder GMO sales and therefore don't impede their profits. According to lawyers, a ruling in favour of Steve Marsh would have led to more stringent rules on GMO farming. For instance, GMO farmers would have had to create large buffer zones between their farms and non GMO or organic farms. This would of course mean more rules for GMO farmers as they are the ones that have chosen this hazardous new technology, and it appears reasonable they should be the ones who have to make sure they don't contaminate non GMO crops. Instead, non GMO and especially organic farmers now have no way to protect their crops from contamination.
As Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, put it : farmers “ suffer economic losses and have no recourse to regain those losses and such contamination can ruin their organic certification and make potential buyers leery of buying their crops”. “The situation is very unjust and biotech/pesticide companies should be held liable for their contaminating GMOs. This case also shows that so-called coexistence of GMOs and organics is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve when there is no liability on the GMO producers or companies.” Joe Lederman, managing principal at FoodLegal approves : "I think the ruling provides a lot of comfort to GM growers(...). Unless something causes physical harm and that has not been shown to be the case here, it will be impossible for any person claiming to be affected economically by a GM crop to be successful in their claim". And this ruling is only going to open Australia even more to the GMO industry. As of today, about 20 % of Australia's canola is GM, but the proportion has been growing and will continue to grow with the support of the Australian judiciary system !
Attacks on Australian organic certification[edit | edit source]
This ruling in favour of GMO is also a ruling against the Australian organic certification. Australia is one of the countries in the world where the organic certification is the most rigorous. Whereas in the United States, the European Union and Japan, crops with trace amounts of GMO may still be certified organic, in Australia, there is still a zero threshold. Indeed Australia's organic certification body rightly believes that customers that purchase organic produce are entitled to know that what they buy is 100 % organic and 0 % GM. However, this court ruling is a clear danger to these high standards of organic produce. In the first ruling, Justice Martin expressed that he felt the decertification of Steve Marsh's farm was unwarranted, and he characterized it as a “gross overreaction”.
It's quite scary that a judge should express such a strong and offensive view about the field of organic agriculture. This reflects the threat that this field faces now that Australian courts have ruled against the possibility of compensation for GMO contamination that causes organic decertification. There will inevitably be calls to loosen organic standards and allow small quantities of GMO’s, as in other countries. And thus we can see that the court rulings against Steve Marsh have set a chain reaction that will not only increase the amount of GMO farmed in Australia but also decrease the number of organic farms and lower the quality of organic produce.
Steve Marsh's defeat in front of Australian court is sorry news for food quality in Australia. The courts have ruled that a farmer can't be compensated for GMO contamination. This is a clear victory for the GMO industry and Monsanto, and it's a bitter defeat for organic agriculture, but actually every Australian has lost. Because Australian produce will get worse, because GM crops will contaminate bigger and bigger areas of farmland. That's why battles like Steve Marsh's matter, and that's why we must rally around all the Steve Marsh's that stand up to agribusiness all round the world.