GM levy plan slammed

Headshot of Jenne Brammer
Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

A Greens proposal for the Commonwealth Government to create a national genetic modification contamination insurance scheme has elicited a negative response from supporters of GM farming.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert tabled the motion in Federal Parliament recently to create a fund that could pay for any clean-up or loss of income incurred by farmers with non-GM crops.

Although Ms Siewert's motion did not set a level for the levy, the GM Free Farmers Group said just $1 a tonne on GM canola would be a good starting point.

GM Free Farmers Group spokesman and Goomalling farmer Darrell Boase said based on the 2013 planting of 168,000ha, and an average yield of 1.8t per hectare, this would amount to more than $300,000 being raised in the first year alone from WA.

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The figure raised is likely to be higher because GM canola plantings are reported to be rising.

He said given the current canola price of about $500 a tonne, a $1 per tonne levy would amount to just 0.2 per cent of the GM canola's value.

"This is a very small amount for GM farmers to pay if you consider that if there were another incident like the Marsh v Baxter case, it could save either party a lot of pain and heartache in the long-term," he said.

Pingelly farmer and CBH board member John Hassell, who does not grow GM canola but does not oppose it, said he did not support a levy, no matter how small.

"Most farmers would have public liability insurance on our farms, which costs us plenty," he said. "If we do something that causes damage to other people, those insurances are already in place.

"If people want to grow GM canola they should be allowed to, but if we're not allowed to grow it without paying a levy, and the rest of the world is, then we will become uncompetitive. Imposing further levies reduces that choice."

That said, Mr Hassell said he did not approve of what he described as a reversal of the onus on non-GM farmers affected by contamination.

"As a spraying contractor, if spray contamination gets out of my fence, then I am liable," he said. "But that seems to be reversed in the case of GM plantings (as seen with the recent Marsh v Baxter court case). I don't like that."

Calingiri farmer John Young, who has researched organic farming as part of his Churchill Fellowship in the US, said he felt such a levy was unnecessary.

"I don't see a need," he said.

"We happily co-exist now on the supply chain with CBH doing a fantastic job of segregations, and GM and organic happily co-existing on the supermarket shelves.

"Farmers, too, should be able to co-exist without a levy."

He said in the Marsh vs Baxter case it was proved in court that no true damage was done to Mr Marsh's crop, and that it was organic certification standards that had let him down.

"To put such an impost on GM farmers, when all over the world GM and conventional farmers are co-existing, is just an unnecessary cost that does not need to happen," Mr Young said.

In December, the State Government asked the Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council to increase the GM tolerance level from zero to 0.9 per cent, which was rejected.

WAFarmers Grain Section president Duncan Young said he opposed such a levy given GM canola was legally allowed to be grown by WA farmers.

He said he did not wish to speculate on further contamination to organic farmers, given a situation such as that of Kojonup farmers Steve Marsh and Michael Baxter may not happen again.

Foodwatch spokeswoman Shirley Collins welcomed the proposed levy. She said though it was long overdue after the horse had bolted, it was not too late to curtail the damage and was nonetheless a step in the right direction for farmers and consumers alike.

Ms Siewert's motion also calls on the WA Government to retain the legislative framework that creates GM-free areas within WA, after a notice by Agriculture Minister Ken Baston that he planned to repeal the GM Crops Free Areas Act 2003.

The Supreme Court will start hearing an appeal in Steve Marsh's damages case against Michael Baxter from next Monday.

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