A West Australian farmer being sued for allowing his genetically modified canola to allegedly contaminate his neighbour’s organic land was “reckless” in how he planted and harvested his crop, a court has been told.
In a landmark case being globally monitored, farmer Steve Marsh is suing his former friend Michael Baxter over the 2010 contamination, which cost Mr Marsh his organic certification and an estimated $85,000 in earnings.
Mr Marsh is seeking compensation, but more importantly for farmers across Australia and beyond, is asking WA’s Supreme Court to issue a permanent injunction on Mr Baxter to prevent him planting more GM crops.
At the opening of the three-week trial, Justice Kenneth Martin was told Mr Marsh lost organic certification for more than half his farm after GM canola found its way onto his land from Baxter’s adjacent property at Kojonup, 250km south-east of Perth.
This was despite Mr Marsh twice warning his neighbour he feared contamination – and telling him he would sue if it did happen.
In 2010 Mr Marsh’s property Eagle Rest, which was used to farm oats, rye and sheep, was certified organic by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA). The organisation has a zero tolerance for GM material.
But after thousands of seeds of the modified “Roundup Ready” canola blew onto his pastures, NASAA withdrew the certification, which prevented Mr Marsh exporting his crop as organic.
Mr Marsh’s barrister Richard Niall told the court this had a devastating effect on Mr Marsh’s livelihood – and it was Mr Baxter’s fault.
“He was completely indifferent and reckless by planting genetically modified canola in adjoining paddocks,” Mr Niall said.
“(Mr Baxter) failed to contain the genetically modified seeds, and they escaped on the wind onto the Marsh property. Thousands of seeds were deposited on Eagle Rest.
“At the time he planted the canola, he knew … that GM seed would escape. It was plainly foreseeable.”
Mr Baxter says that when he planted the GM canola, just months after it had been approved by the WA government, he observed all regulations regarding buffer zones and notifying his neighbours.
He is defending the case with the backing of biotechnology company Monsanto.
Mr Marsh was recertified as organic last November, after Mr Baxter agreed to modify his harvesting method to lessen the chance of seeds being blown next door.
The legal battle has divided the small farming community, and set the former childhood friends against each other.
And it has also divided experts, who say the case would not arise in other parts of the world because of higher tolerance levels for GM levels in non-GM crops.
Supporters of Mr Marsh rallied outside the court before the hearing.
Scott Kinnear, director of the Safe Food Foundation, said Mr Marsh was making a stand for all Australians.
“Steve Marsh’s right to grow what he chooses is the same as our right to choose what we eat,” Mr Kinnear said.
The hearing continues.