DAFWA in GM bias claim

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

Steve Marsh has accused the Department of Agriculture and Food WA of a bias towards GM crops, by co-operating with chemical giant Monsanto to relax the zero GM tolerance standards for organic farms, only months before his farm was contaminated by his neighbour Michael Baxter.

Mr Marsh provided _Countryman _ with a trail of emails, beginning only months before he first reported GM contamination on his farm in December 2010, which show Monsanto and DAFWA had anticipated contamination was likely under the organic industry's zero tolerance to GM standards, and had been working together to relax the tolerance for organic crops.

The emails also show the department and Monsanto had communicated with each other to promote the ideology of GM and non-GM co-existence through the media, as well as prepare responses to questions about the contamination on the Marshes' organic farm because they knew contamination was inevitable under the organic industry's standards.

Correspondence between DAFWA and Monsanto just days after the contamination on the Marshes' farm (which continued over the course of the Marsh v Baxter trial), also reveal a shared ideology that WA organic growers had an "overwhelming antipathy to all things GM".

Other documents obtained by _Countryman _ show DAFWA made an application just days before the Supreme Court trial began on February 14, 2014, to amend the National Standard for Biodynamic and Organic Produce, which was signed by its director general Rob Delane.

In the DAFWA application it was claimed the department believed current Australian Standards included requirements that were unworkable and restricted business opportunities for Australian producers.

The department's application came after Monsanto had inquired to DAFWA about its legal standing after certified organic farmers in Kojonup, including the Marshes, delivered letters to neighbours and published public notices in local papers warning of imminent GM contamination.

Mr Marsh said he had reported the contamination to DAFWA "in good faith" that it would use its regulatory powers to protect his organic business.

"I had faith that the department would run a full investigation of the contamination and then put out a farm note advising other growers about the issues of containment," he said.

"The communication that was happening between DAFWA and Monsanto was completely unbeknown to me, and I was surprised and disappointed to discover later on that it appears the department's primary concern after I reported the contamination was not to help me protect our business, but more so to mitigate Monsanto's legal liability as a result of the contamination.

"As I can now prove, it turns out that DAFWA and Monsanto had been working together on the issue of GM canola contamination from a liability, marketing and containment perspective, since the department first ran GM canola field trials in August 2009."

A DAFWA spokeswoman confirmed the department did undertake discussions with organic certifier NASAA in 2010 about tolerance levels for organic crops. The spokeswoman also said DAFWA made a submission requesting non-GM tolerance levels to be relaxed to allow 0.9 per cent, but claimed the decision to lodge an application was made independent of Monsanto.

"The department regularly liaised with industry regarding the adoption of GM canola. This included key industry groups such as CBH Group, grower organisations, technology providers (including Monsanto) and seed distributors. The aim of the department's 2010 audit program was to assess the compliance of growers with the conditions of the Roundup Ready Licence and Stewardship Agreement. In order to ensure accuracy, the department conferred with Monsanto as required to prepare GM canola-related documents including the 2010 audit checklist and canola farmnotes," she said.

Monsanto corporate spokesman Adam Blight said the company had worked collaboratively across the agriculture industry to develop systems based on the best science that would enable Roundup Ready-canola to co-exist with different crops.

_"Australia's zero tolerance organic standards are out of step with the rest of the world. Australia's major trading partners, including Europe, the US and Canada, have practical standards for organic production that do not place impossible requirements on organic farmers and their GM farming neighbours," he said. _

"For us involved with Australian agriculture and passionate about our farmers, it has been regrettable to see neighbours and friends end up in court. We hope that disputes like this can be avoided in the future through different farming sectors working closely together, along with good crop management practices."

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