An organic farmer in Western Australia loses his bid to claim damages from a neighbour after genetically modified (GMO) canola seed heads blew on to his property, contaminated his farm and cost him his organic certification.
West Australian farmer, Steve Marsh, experienced a harrowing situation when his organic crops were contaminated by genetically modified canola seed that blew onto his property from his neighbor's farm.
Unfortunately, his neighbor was his childhood friend, but it didn't stop him for suing for damages. He filed a lawsuit to cover the loss of about 70% of his organic crop certification, tainted by the GM canola. The lawsuit looked to cover the loss, totaling $85,000.
Shockingly, he lost and was ordered to pay the court costs of $804,000.
The Supreme Court of Western Australia ruled on Wednesday against organic farmer Steve Marsh, who sued his former friend Michael Baxter after winds carried harvested seed from Baxter's Monsanto Roundup Ready canola crop on to Marsh's farm.
"I fought everything by the law. Everything was legal. It's a common practice around all farming communities. It's a legal product. There's nothing not safe about it, nothing been proven not safe about it," Baxter said outside the court.
The case pitted two former friends against each other, whose families had farmed adjoining properties, Eagle Rest and Sevenoaks, for many years at Kojunip, 256 km (160 miles), southeast of Perth.
Baxter told Marsh during a 2010 "busy bee" working group at another farmer's property that he intended to plant GMO canola in two boundary paddocks. Marsh had found non-GMO canola from Baxter's property on his farm several years earlier, the judge said.
Marsh's lawsuit alleged that harvested seed heads from Monsanto's laboratory-created canola seed blew from Baxter's property across a dirt lane and over a boundary fence in November 2010, re-germinating on Marsh's land in January 2011.
The lawyer acting for Marsh described the ruling as disappointing.
Local media said the case had divided the farming community in Kojonup, 260km (160 miles) south east of Perth, where both men grew up as friends and now farm.
John Snooke of Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia disagreed.
"I really do think the ructions in the community down there have been overstated. We have many members down there. The community is strong, they are certainly watching the issue but is in no way dividing farmers and the community. Farmers understand the tolerance levels. They know GM Canola is safe. An organic farmer should not have been decertified for an unintended or accidental event that was out of his control. Steve Marsh should have pursued his organic certifier for the damage it caused him, not his neighbour," he said.
Lawyers told Reuters that a win for Marsh on the grounds of trespass could have led to new rules, such as larger buffer zones between GMO and organic farmers, potentially curbing the amount of GMO canola being planted.
Unlike the United States, the European Union and Japan, which allow trace amounts of GMO crops in organic foods in acknowledgement of contamination by wind or pollen transfer, Australia maintains a zero threshold.
Proponents of organic farming said the judgement will open the door to more farmers losing their organic licence as GMO crop production increases.
"Natural food should prevail. That should be grown first. GM food, they've introduced it, it's their science. Until they can take care of it and grow it under the proper regulations without letting it spread, they should be taking all the precautions," said an anti-GMO campaigner outside the court.
GMO crops accounted for about 15-20 percent of Australia's 3.2 million tonne canola crop in 2012/13, according to the Australian Oilseeds Federation, and the proportion has been growing.
Canola is grown for its seed, which is crushed for the oil used in margarine, cooking oils, salad oils and edible oil blends. Australia sells most of its exports to Europe and is the world's second-largest canola exporter after Canada, which produces mainly GMO canola.