WA organic farmer loses GM appeal

A West Australian farmer who tried to sue his neighbour after genetically modified canola blew onto his land, contaminating his organic crop, faces losing his property following an unsuccessful appeal.


Kojonup farmer Steve Marsh failed in his lawsuit against childhood friend Michael Baxter in May last year, saying he had lost organic certification for 70 per cent of his farm because of contamination from Mr Baxter’s herbicide-resistant crop.

Mr Marsh had sought $85,000 in damages, but was instead ordered to pay court costs of about $804,000.

He began an appeal in March, arguing that Mr Baxter’s method of harvesting, known as swathing, had allowed loose canola to remain on the ground and then blow onto his farm next door, which had been organic since 2006, long before growing GM crops was lawful.

On Thursday, the West Australian Court of Appeal ruled against Mr Marsh, although it was not a unanimous decision.

Speaking outside court, a visibly upset Mr Marsh told reporters he was not yet sure if he would take the matter to the High Court.

“We will have to absorb the judgment,” he said.

“It’s a fairly long judgment, so we’ll consider that with our lawyers and barristers.

“It was obviously a two-one decision, so they weren’t all against us.”

Asked about the prospect of losing his farm because of the bill, Mr Marsh said he would take one day at a time.

Mr Baxter said nobody liked to see anyone lose their property but Mr Marsh had taken the “hard line”.

“He should have stepped over the fence and had a chat before he decided to go to court,” Mr Baxter said.

He said Mr Marsh’s farm had contaminated his crops with rust and aphids, and he could have launched his own action.

But Mr Marsh said that was nonsense.

“This product has a technology in it,” he said.

“It’s got a patent on it to start with, so you can’t tell me … an aphid or a weed, is the same as GM technologies.”

Scott Kinnear of the Safe Food Foundation, which contributed to Mr Marsh’s legal costs, said the result was disappointing.

“It’s not necessarily over,” Mr Kinnear said.

“It needs to be sorted out as an industry-wide issue. It’s not going to go away with this decision.”

The Gene Ethics group said the quest for GM-free agriculture was not over, and called on the state government to halt plans to repeal the GM Crops Free Areas Act 2003.

“This act is the last line of defence for consumers who want their products to be 100 per cent GM free,” Greens MP Lynn MacLaren said.

“Rather than weakening farmer protection, we should be strengthening it.”