The Fight for Organic
By Sheshtyn de Souza
A Western Australian farmer is getting ready for the battle of a lifetime. Steve Marsh is a soft-spoken organic farmer from Kojonup, a town located 250km south east of Perth. Marsh talks to me over the phone in timid, diminutive tones, and despite being quite talkative about his situation, he trails off to almost a whisper several times as though wearied by discussing such a great burden.
Marsh is taking his neighbour to court after 70% of his property was contaminated by Roundup Ready canola, a genetically
modified (GM) seed created by the US-based farming giant Monsanto. The patented seed has been modified to withstand the toxic effects of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers have been purchasing the potent herbicide and its accompanying GM seed as a “weed control system”. Marsh’s land was contaminated in December last year after his neighbour’s GM canola spread down the hill to Marsh’s farm, carried by wind and a minor flood.
What were the costs?
The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) decertified Marsh’s farm after having organic status for eight years, with 325 hectares of his land being contaminated by the GM canola plants. This means Marsh can no longer sell his wheat, oats, rye, spelt or even his lambs as organic. This is a significant financial blow for Marsh because organic and non-GM products fetch a higher price than GM products. Non-GM canola currently fetches a premium of up to $50 per tonne more than the GM product.
“Under the NASAA organic certification, there’s a zero tolerance for GM product, and I can’t use seed contaminated with GM and so on,” Marsh says. “What we’ve proven here is that GM seed can’t be controlled and contained by the GM farmer, hence it has crossed by wind into my property on a pretty large scale. What do we do? That land’s contaminated for how long? You know, it could be many years.”
GM canola seed can germinate on contaminated land for up to 16 years. Marsh is planning to claim compensation for the financial loss associated with the contamination, and the resultant clean-up costs.
“Organic certification is not something you obtain easily, and it’s not something you maintain easily. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of effort, and it’s a lot of discipline,” says Bob Mackley, a conventional farmer from Western Australia whose land was also contaminated by GM seeds early this year. “One jackass neighbour has put that whole show at risk and appears to think, ‘Well, that’s fine. I’m allowed to do what I jolly well like’. And the West Australian Minister for Agriculture says, ‘Oh yes, everyone has to move aside to make room for GM’.”
The government’s response
WA’s Agriculture Minister Terry Redman has proven to be no friend of Marsh’s or the organic and conventional farming industries. Redman wrote a letter to Marsh in October urging the NASAA to be flexible, calling the food purity standards expected by the certifying body “unrealistic”.
“The European Union recently adopted a threshold of 0.9 per cent unintentional presence of approved GM material in organic products. This decision acknowledges that zero per cent thresholds are unrealistic in biological systems,” Redman wrote to Marsh last October.
A Monsanto spokeswoman agreed with Redman, proposing the solution to Marsh’s problem was for the NASAA to relax its zero tolerance policy.
“Having a couple of canola plants blow into a farm should not be affecting its organic wheat status,” she told The Australian in December.
Marsh says he is “very disappointed” with Redman’s response to his situation. “There’s clearly no legislation, as I understand, in protecting any non-GM farmer,” he says. “I’d like to ask Terry Redman, what happened to my choice? You’ve given the GM farmer the choice. Well, I want the same choice to remain GM-free.”
Australian government’s partnership with Monsanto
In an insidious twist, there is a distinct partnership between Monsanto and Australian state governments. After helping lift the GM farming ban in Western Australia in 2010 (the ban was lifted in NSW and Victoria in 2008), Redman has been working with Monsanto as a business partner. Last year, Monsanto purchased a 19.9% share in InterGrain, a crop breeding company of which the Western Australian State Government is a majority shareholder. InterGrain is now in charge of Western Australia’s wheat breeding program, GM wheat being their joint research priority.
“When [Redman] announced the lifting of the ban, Monsanto’s representative was with him on the podium. You can’t get more in bed than that really,” says Bob Phelps, director of the Melbourne-based activist group Gene Ethics. “Our governments have public/private partnerships with GM companies, so they’re in bed with each other. The premier and the government of Victoria and also the government of QLD are members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which is based in Washington D.C. to promote American corporate interests abroad.
We’ve argued strenuously that they should divest themselves of that connection, but at the moment there are still four [Australian state government] members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.”
Marsh also said the government had ignored his concerns about GM contamination. “I personally went to see Terry Redman before they approved GM; I’ve seen the Department of Agriculture and I’ve seen various ministers, but it all fell on deaf ears,” says Marsh.
A contamination strategy?
One wonders whether contamination is all a part of Monsanto’s plan. Marsh’s neighbour allegedly left the legal five-metre buffer between his GM crops and Marsh’s land. However, neither the government nor Monsanto seems to care that GM product is easily spread, especially after being windrowed (cut from the root).
“The assurances that contamination can be controlled are nonsense,” says Mackley. “It’s been shown many times that they are unable to control where these genes ultimately end up. So I think to say that we can stop GM contamination is just a joke. We need to say that GM canola may not be windrowed, because that makes it far more likely to get washed because it’s dry and light and it’s detached from its roots. And we also need to GM industry to have a mechanism to compensate those non-GM growers who are affected by their product.”
“Contamination is in Monsanto’s interests,” says Phelps. “That’s why it happens, so that there is no going back, so that you take away shoppers’ choice. And of course this is all done under the guise of giving the farmers choice, which is a load of rubbish. By allowing GM canola to be grown, of course the choice of every other farmer to be non-GM or GM-free has essentially been snuffed out.”
What anti-GM campaigners want is for Australian state governments to pass Farmer Protection Laws to compensate the victims of contamination. Since there are no legal precedents surrounding GM contamination in Australia, Marsh’s case will be a groundbreaking decider on the rights of farmers to keep their land GM-free. “It could set a lot of precedents,” says Marsh, “if it’s successful.”
The battle ahead
Marsh has retained Slater & Gordon Lawyers, the Australian law firm known for representing asbestos victims, with the intention to lodge a writ against the offending neighbour. In the meantime, Marsh urges Australians to lobby their government ministers and representatives.
“A lot of people don’t realise this yet, but it’s our food for god’s sake, it’s going to affect every one of us,” says Marsh.
He also says we should demand the right to have food properly labeled from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and to lobby the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, so people “can make an informed decision if they want to avoid eating GM. But there’s been a lot of resistance by the GM industry not to have full disclosure.”
The Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia is funding the offending neighbour’s legal costs, and Monsanto has stated its support for him. Conversely, the NASAA has set up a benefit “fighting fund” for Marsh to help him pay for the legal battle ahead.
If you would like to know more, or are interested in helping out or spreading the word, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To speak directly to the NASAA, contact David Kibble at email@example.com, or Gene Ethics’ director Bob Phelps at firstname.lastname@example.org.