A landmark legal case, that is being watched around the world, is currently being heard in the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Organic farmer Steve Marsh is suing his childhood friend and neighbour, Michael Baxter, for losses associated with the contamination of his land from Baxter’s GM canola planted next door to him. As a result of the contamination, Marsh lost his organic certification on 70% of his land and suffered significant loss of income as a result. He is suing Baxter for $85,000 AUD.
The trial has garnered attention because it is the first time that am individual farmer has been sued for the contamination of land by GM crops. It is a precedent setting trial that will have ramifications in courts around the world. Both plaintiff and defendant have received significant support for their legal defense – Marsh from the Safe Food Foundation and global ‘crowd-funding campaign’ and Baxter by The Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia and, some sources saying, Monsanto. To date, the trial’s cases have focused on issues of negligence by Baxter, who despite following legal protocol for the growing of GM crops, made choices that led to the contamination of Marsh’s land when he had other options; and in Baxter’s defense, the ‘unreasonable’ standards (a zero tolerance policy regarding GM crops) of the organic certification body, National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA). Both cases are taking interesting and unexpected tacts on the issues at stake, but there is yet more to be argued. Important to keep in mind is that when Western Australia introduced GM crops, there was minimal protocol in place regarding planting to protect non-GM and organic farms.
The trial has been couched within the wider issue of farmers’ rights. Perhaps the most insidious thing about the introduction of GM is their potential to contaminate organic and non-GM land, gradually destroying the distinction between the two. In a world where GM crops are planted in abundance, cross-contamination with non-GM is inevitable, and the choice to eat GMOs or not will become obsolete.
For farmers and growers who have made a choice not to grow GM, crop contamination can mean the collapse of their business as it did for Steve Marsh, and not just due to a loss of organic certification. Consumers against GMOs are significant in numbers and increasing, and they wouldn’t choose to be eating contaminated food. Consumers are right to link the issue of whether farmers can keep their lands free from contamination to the issue of consumer choice. Consumer choice around GMO is reduced or, at worst, eradicated if it’s impossible to grow crops free from GMO contamination. As Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food, points out, it’s an infringement on ‘a fundamental right, the right to food sovereignty.’ There is a lot at stake here and the outcome of this trial will have significant impact on the prevalence of GMOs in our food chain in the future.
There is a global campaign to raise awareness of Steve Marsh’s suit and help to raise the money for his legal costs. $750,000 has been raised to date but there is still more needed. Join the ‘#IamSteveMarsh’ campaign and make yourself heard on Twitter in support of food sovereignty and consumer choice.
Follow @safefoodfound for news and updates as the trial progresses.
Photograph by Indigo Skies Photography
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