GMO ruling: Now we are all Michael Baxter

The hard-won court victory by a Western Australian farmer who was sued when some of his GM crops escaped on to a neighbouring organic property is a win for science over zealotry, Richard Roush writes.

Farmer Michael Baxter outside the Supreme Court in Perth during the court case brought against him by a neighbouring farmer. – Will Russell / Newspix

After more than three long stressful years – which included the breakup of his marriage – farmer Michael Baxter was totally exonerated by the Western Australian Supreme Court last week over claims of “negligence and nuisance” for failing to prevent a small amount of genetically modified canola seed from blowing on to his neighbour’s organic farm, resulting in him losing his organic certification. Justice Kenneth Martin comprehensively rejected organic farmer Steve Marsh’s complaints, noting that his legal action was “without precedent” and that “no basis in principle was shown to extend the law to these events”.

Unfortunately for Baxter, he was a victim of forces much larger than the winds that blew his seeds. One need only look at the signs of the protesters at the decision, or the broader public claims of the major fundraiser for Marsh, the Safe Food Foundation.

This case was born from and driven by non-scientifically based prejudice and fear-mongering against GM crops. That prejudice may fly freely in the public arena. But when it came to the rigorous standards of evidence required by the courts, Marsh’s supporters found themselves woefully ill-equipped. Most major scientific regulatory agencies, including those in the highly cautious European Union, accept that GM crops and foods are as safe as anything produced conventionally. When the organic farmer’s legal team, including solicitors Slater & Gordon, asked one of its own experts, Professor Van Acker, “Is the existence and extent of any risks to human health or the environment from genetically modified, or GM, crops presently a matter of debate amongst relevantly qualified scientists?”, Van Acker declined to answer. The lawyers apparently gave up.

The position of the Australian organic industry is curiously biased against GM crops as compared to contamination with proven toxins.

Supporters of the case claimed it would be a world first, one that would set a global precedent. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. I was in California last week, a state that voted two years ago not to require the labelling of GM food, and where debate in the state Senate on a GM labelling bill was widely reported. Still, I could find no mention of Baxter’s win in any US news. But it’s certainly newsworthy in one way: Australia is one of the few jurisdictions in the world where a case like this could find its way to court. That’s because our organics industry has decided on zero tolerance for the presence of GM material in certified organic crops.

But it’s not that way elsewhere. In the 2000s, I led a team at the University of California, Davis that was responsible for promoting organic agriculture. There and in most places, organic certifiers tolerate very small levels of legally approved GM seeds, pollen, or other plant materials found in a crop, even in organics. Indeed a recent survey found that 18% of US organic farmers co-cultivate GM crops and none lose their certification.

Organic farmer Steve Marsh after losing his court case against neighbouring farmer Baxter. – Ross Swanborough / Newspix

The position of the Australian organic industry is curiously biased against GM crops as compared to contamination with proven toxins. For instance, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Limited (NASAA), the organic certification agency at the core of this court case, tolerates heavy metals and pesticide residues found in the farming of conventional crops. In other words, NASAA is prepared to accept residues of chemicals with known health risks, while rejecting tolerances for GM crops, for which there is no credible evidence of harm.

Further, the standards turn a blind eye to the fact that some elements of the organic industry actively fan consumer fears about GM. Prominent here is the Safe Food Foundation, the primary cheerleader and fundraiser to the tune of $750,000 for the Marsh litigation. It has continued to promote studies that claim risks from GM food, even after those claims have been rejected by most major food regulatory agencies.

Justice Kenneth Martin reserved particular and sharp criticism for NASAA, citing “the erroneous application of governing NASAA Standards applicable to NASAA organic operators as regards to GMOs at the time”. He also ruled that the reaction of Marsh’s organic certification body, NCO, which had retracted Marsh’s organic certification, was “unjustifiable”. Marsh had never grown canola so there was no risk of a genetic transfer from Baxter’s GM plants. The so-called contamination consisted of “eight GM canola plants found to have grown up as self-sown volunteer plants”. That’s right – just eight plants, easily removed.

Not surprisingly, the true believers of the organic industry and some Green politicians are undaunted by the facts and logic assessed by an independent umpire. Rather than accept that not even Slater & Gordon could document harm, or that organic farmer Marsh’s woes owed far more to NASAA’s stance than to Baxter’s eight GM canola plants, they now contemplate an appeal and seek new legislation.

Protesters at the trial held up signs declaring, “I am Steve Marsh”. I hope that you will join me in saying “We are all Michael Baxter”. He has carried a heavy burden for us all.

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