Friday, January 31, 2014

Organic farmer Steve Marsh fights the GM monster

"Steve's case is really a case about all of us," declared renowned Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva in a support statement for Steve Marsh. It is about our right to "have the freedom to eat healthy safe organic food".

Marsh is an organic farmer from Kojanup in Western Australia who is embroiled in a landmark "David versus Goliath" legal case about GM pollution on his farm.

In 2010, his neighbour Michael Baxter started growing genetically modified (GM) canola. The same year, shortly after harvest, a strong wind blew and Marsh found stalks and seed heads from the GM canola on his farm.

More than 15 years ago, Marsh started down the road of organic farming, yet he lost the organic certification over 70 per cent of his farm in one fell swoop after self sown GM canola started growing on his land the very first season after the WA government approved GM canola for commercial use on farms.

The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), which is responsible for organic certification, has a zero tolerance policy in relation to GM. To be certified organic, there must be zero presence of genetically engineered plants on the farm

"There was evidence of GM seed growing on his property; we know that was not his fault, that it was not deliberate, but that is not the issue," the NASAA's Jan Denham told The Australian in 2013.

"NASAA's national certification standards and international export standards clearly state that 'any GM organism is prohibited' [on an organic farm] so [Marsh] had to be decertified because there was clear evidence of contamination of genetically engineered canola on his place," she said.

Supporters of GM technology, such as then Agriculture Minister Terry Redman, blame organic standards for being too strict. "The threshold for accidental presence in organic crops is an important issue which needs to be addressed to enable coexistence," Redman wrote to Marsh in 2010. He said that zero tolerance for GM in organic crops is "unrealistic". This continues to be the position of the WA government and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA).

However Scott Kinnear from the Safe Food Foundation told Green Left Weekly that it is the right of the organic standards bodies to set their own standards.

A zero tolerance threshold, in relation to particular diseases for instance, is not unheard of when classifying grains in circumstances unrelated to organic certification, according to Kinnear.

In any case, he said, "organic standards have been around a lot longer than GM crops".

The loss of his organic certification was a major financial blow to Marsh, leaving him with no choice but to sue his neighbour and lifelong friend. (Both farmers are well regarded in the community and both come from families that have farmed the region for generations.) The matter is due to start on February10 and is scheduled to run for three weeks.

There are well established common law provisions in agriculture which give legal protection to farmers from their neighbours over-spraying or contaminating crops with diseases. However, there are currently no provisions relating to GM pollution.

Therefore this is a landmark case which will set a precedent in relation to GM pollution. It is internationally significant. It could well be the first case in the world where an organic farmer is taking legal action over GM pollution.

While Monsanto initially declared that they would support Baxter, they later reversed that position according to Kinnear. He said there is currently no evidence that Monsanto is giving material support to Baxter.

However the PGA is supporting Baxter with media comment and a fighting fund. PGA spokesperson Sheldon Mumby told Green Left that Monsanto is not supporting Baxter or the PGA and has no involvement in the case. Mumby presents the case as being simply a matter of one farmer suing another farmer.

Nevetheless, the case will have an internationally significant impact in relation to the rights of farmers to choose to grow organic produce and the rights of consumers to choose non-GM food. Already a wide range of environmentalists, farmers, chefs and others have come out in support of Marsh.

Gardening Australia presenter, Costa Georgiadis, for instance, has appeared in a support video for Marsh saying "Steve Marsh may be in Western Australia, but he's actually in your pantry, in your fridge, in your local supermarket, wherever and whenever you put something in your mouth."

This is because as soon as GM crops are allowed to be commercially grown, contamination is inevitable. "If we lose this case, you can kiss goodbye to our right to eat organic food," said Kinnear.

Socialist Alliance candidate for the expected WA senate re-election, Chris Jenkins, puts it this way: "It is not possible for GM and non-GM crops to coexist separately. As a community, we have to choose one or the other."

"If you asked the people, most people would choose GM free," said Jenkins. "Instead of deciding democratically, governments and corporations are imposing the GM option on us. That is why we are supporting Steve Marsh."

"This is a system of food dictatorship," Shiva says in a similar vein. "We've got to stop before it is too late."

[This article by Alex Bainbridge was written for Green Left Weekly #995. Steve Marsh can be supported via the Safe Food Foundation.]

Help Steve Marsh stop GM canola

March Against Monsanto supports Steve Marsh