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Organic farmer claims new taint

Rueben HaleThe West Australian
Invasion: Steve Marsh with the foreign canola.
Camera IconInvasion: Steve Marsh with the foreign canola. Credit: Danella Bevis/The West Australian

Organic farmer Steve Marsh has reported a fresh contamination of volunteer canola from his neighbour Michael Baxter’s property.

The Kojonup farmer discovered the plants growing last week in his paddock at the same place GM canola had blown onto his property in 2010, causing him and his wife Sue to lose organic certification on about 70 per cent of their farm.

The incident triggered a landmark legal case over the growing of GM crops in WA, after the Marshes sued Mr Baxter, claiming the incursion had been responsible for the loss.

Last year the Marshes regained organic certification for their 478 ha property and are trying to re-establish a normal cropping rotation, sowing oats on about a third of the farm this season.

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Mr Marsh said he was “fairly certain” that the invading canola this time was non-GM, because he’d paid $1500 to have swaths that had blown from Mr Baxter’s property tested in November.

However, Mr Marsh said the latest contamination reinforces the fact that canola cannot be contained and that a GM grower doesn’t have to notify his neighbour of what he is growing. On the other hand, an organic grower had to meet their own expenses to test plants that had drifted in to their properties through no fault of their own.

“In my case, with what has happened with my neighbour, I guess we’re a high-risk organic grower,” Mr Marsh said.

Mr Marsh and his wife Sue are awaiting a final decision to be made after an appeal over the case, which they lost last year. A decision is likely to be made in coming months.

In the initial hearing, Justice Ken Martin rejected the damages claim against Mr Baxter and endorsed his rightto grow GM canola.

Justice Martin said no evidence was presented showing any risk to people, animals or property from contact with GM canola, and questioned aspects of Mr Marsh’s testimony, finding a privately operated certification body should not have removed his farm’s organic status.

Former governor Malcolm McCusker represented Mr Marsh in the appeal against the judgment.

Mr Marsh said the on-going case was costing them about $150,000 a year in lost production.

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“The financial impacts have meant we’ve had to borrow money to keep the farm going and pay back the cost of the loan by selling of the farms livestock,” he said.

“We’ve also lost potential profits from organic lamb sales, because the farm lost its organic certification.

“Most people see an agreed loss presented to the court and not necessarily the ongoing losses we continue to face.

“I challenge any grain grower to lose half their grain income for three years and see how well they can survive on that.”

Mr Marsh said before the initial contamination and the legal case, their farm was a thriving organic business producing organic oats and livestock and had the option of selling them as organic produce at premium price or through conventional marketing chains.

“In 2009 we bought an organic commercial flour mill for the property to mill organic flour for the Perth market,” he said.

“That’s now all lost,” he said.

“Before the contamination we already had a good organic oat market and developing organic lambs, as well as looking to value add in a number of new areas.

“Before the contamination we already had a good organic oat market and developing organic lambs, and we were looking to value-add in new areas.

“Even if we are successful with our appeal we will never totally recover because we’ll never recover those lost opportunities over the last five years.”

The State Government recently signalled its intent to repeal laws covering the growing of GM crops in WA within months. The Act gives WA the power to veto local farmers growing GM crops approved by Commonwealth authorities.

Mr Baxter was contacted for comment but failed to respond by the time of publication.

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