Farming mates face-off

Brad Thompson, ANALYSISThe West Australian
Farming mates face-off
Camera IconFarming mates face-off Credit: The West Australian

Growing up together and farming side-by-side for almost half a century, Steve Marsh and Mike Baxter could never have imagined facing off in a high-profile court case.

GM demand soars ahead of trial |

All that changed in 2010 when GM canola found its way onto Mr Marsh's certified-organic farm near Kojonup. It was alleged the GM material came from a crop on Mr Baxter's farm.

The neighbours, who once shared common ground at school, sports clubs, social events and in the local fire brigade, are locked in a damages case which raises key issues about property rights and the use of GM crops.

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The case has lit up social media, attracted celebrity tweets, inspired fundraising concerts and grabbed the global attention of supporters and opponents on both sides of the GM fence.

Mr Marsh is seeking undisclosed damages from Mr Baxter after losing his organic status with the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, which has a zero tolerance for GM.

The case begins in the Supreme Court on Monday, with up to 20 witnesses - including local farmers and international experts - expected to give evidence.

In the past, both men have spoken about the toll the case has taken on their lives and on their families and friends.

GM technology remains a polarising issue around the world and Mr Marsh and Mr Baxter have both attracted plenty of support.

The backers on both sides have set out to portray their farmer as the underdog.

Mr Baxter has the support of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, which campaigned strongly for the introduction of GM canola in WA.

Mr Marsh has the support of high-profile law firm Slater & Gordon, which is "conducting Mr Marsh's trial as a public interest case", and the Safe Food Foundation, which refuses to reveal its major financial backer and has promoted the case as Marsh v Monsanto.

Asked if it was financially supporting Mr Baxter, Monsanto refused to comment.

Mr Baxter is being represented by Bradley Bayly Legal, a low-profile but highly successful WA-based firm.

The legal teams agree the case will not decide issues about the safety or otherwise of GM food.

Slater & Gordon lawyer Mark Walter said the case was about property rights under common law. But it also had freedom of choice implications for farmers and consumers of food who wanted to stay GM-free.

GM farmers believe the case will focus on property rights and the NASAA's zero tolerance certification standards.

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