Two neighbouring farmers, a field of canola and a gust of wind are at the centre of a landmark court case in Australia that could have consequences for the growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in the country.
Steve Marsh is suing former childhood friend Michael Baxter after harvested seed heads from Baxter’s GM canola crop blew onto Marsh’s farm in the state of Western Australia, court documents said, contaminating land used for his organic oat and wheat crops.
Marsh, stripped of his organic certification and export licence for his oats, is claiming unspecified damages in the case, which opened on January 10 in the West Australian Supreme Court.
It is the first time in Australia one farmer has sued another for negligence over contamination of organic crops by genetically modified organisms (GMO) and will set a precedent for future cases, lawyers said.
The case also illustrates the challenge Australia faces developing its agri-business sector as it looks to become a “food bowl” for Asia amid rapidly growing demand for everything from grains to beef.
Baxter’s lawyer Brian Bradley declined to comment ahead of the trial. Marsh and Baxter both declined to speak to Reuters. The former friends have not spoken to each other since the row erupted, local media reported.
Baxter bought the seeds from Monsanto Co, the world’s largest seed company. Marsh opted not to sue the US firm because of a non-liability contract Monsanto signs with all farmers who buy its seeds.
The case is likely to lead to regulations outlining boundaries between farms producing GM crops and organic farms, lawyers said, potentially reducing the land available for cultivation.
Unlike the US, the EU and Japan, which allow trace amounts of GMO in organic foods in acknowledgement of contamination by wind or pollen transfer, Australia maintains a zero threshold.
Kojonup, a wheat and sheep district some 250 km south of Perth, is a quiet, tight-knit community of farmers. But the case is splitting loyalties in the pastoral area where many farmers have turned to cutting-edge GMO production.
Marsh’s decision to sue Baxter, 48, has garnered support from celebrity chefs. In the other corner, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association is giving financial support to Baxter. “We believe in the farmers right to choose what he grows,” said chairman John Snooke.
Monsanto declined to comment on whether it was giving financial assistance to Baxter, an accusation levelled by Marsh’s supporters.
Organic farmers see threat from the hearing on two fronts. In the event Standards Australia does not change its zero-tolerance policy, farmers risk losing organic certification. Alternatively, an easing of the policy would result in Australia losing its position on world markets as a strict organic producer.
Demand for safe and nutritious food is forecast to soar across Asia over the next five years, with consumer spending predicted by the Economist Intelligence Unit to rise to $3.7 trillion from $2.8 trillion in 2012.