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Organic Farmer Sues GM Farming Neighbor

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—In a landmark case, an organic farmer in Western Australia state is suing his neighbor for allegedly contaminating his crop with a genetically modified organism (GMO), GM canola. This is the first claim anywhere in the world by a “non-GMO farmer against a GMO farmer,” says Joe Lederman of the specialist law firm FoodLegal in Melbourne.

Australia lifted a nationwide moratorium on GM crops in 2009. Only the state of South Australia prohibits planting of GM crops, a ban expected to hold until at least 2019. Because it is legal to sow GM crops in Western Australia, the case now being heard in the Western Australia Supreme Court in Perth turns on whether the GM farmer was negligent in the sense of not taking strict enough measures to contain GM material on his property, says University of Western Australia legal expert Michael Blakeney, an adviser to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

In court documents, Steve Marsh states that his organic farm, southeast of Perth, was contaminated in 2010 by GM canola, which he claims came from Michael Baxter’s farm. As a result, that year Marsh lost his National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) organic certification for approximately 70% of his property, on which he grows oats and rye and keeps sheep. Marsh is seeking damages of $85,000 for lost income and a permanent injunction preventing Baxter from planting GMOs within 1 kilometer of his farm.

Baxter’s lawyers contend that he maintained the required 500-meter buffer zone around his crop and say there was no justification for removing Marsh’s certification. They argue that Marsh should sue NASAA for imposing unrealistic standards. The association has zero tolerance for GM material of any sort. In contrast, the United States allows products with up to 5% GM material to be labeled “organic.” Even the European Union, where public perception of GM crops is generally negative, allows up to 0.9% GM material. “Zero tolerance is not realistic for crops growing in the vicinity of GM crops,” says plant scientist Graham King of Southern Cross University in Lismore.

The case does not question the science or safety of GM crops that have Australian regulatory approval. The outcome, however, might impact labeling and product information of both GM and non-GM foods, says bioethicist Rachel Ankeny with the University of Adelaide. She claims that such information is “currently inadequate in Australia.”

The case not only pits neighbor against neighbor; it’s also shaping up as what some see as a David versus Goliath battle. According to the Australian Associated Press, Marsh’s legal costs are being partly funded from a crowdsourced Internet appeal, while the biotechnology giant Monsanto is backing Baxter. The case is expected to run at least another week.