The organic dream is over

Rueben Hale andBrad ThompsonCountryman

It’s the end of the road for Kojonup organic farmers Steve and Sue Marsh, who face imminent bankruptcy after losing their high profile GM case against neighbour Mike Baxter.

Mr Marsh’s application for leave to appeal to the High Court as he pursued an $85,000 damages claim against Mr Baxter was rejected last week, leaving Mr Marsh with no more legal avenues and facing a million-dollar legal bill, compounded on money the farm has already lost since the case started in 2010.

It was the last legal roll of the dice for Mr Marsh, who launched the case over an incident in 2010 which occurred soon after Mr Baxter swathed his canola crop.

He said since 2010 the farm has lost half of its grain income for three years and also had to sell-off 1500-head of sheep to pay legal costs throughout the long-winded court battle.

WA’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeal had already rejected the claim, which centred on a private company’s decision to withdraw organic certification on Mr Marsh’s farm after stalks of GM canola were found on the property.

Last week’s court ruling means the Marshes are looking at a total costs bill of $1 million, but Marsh supporters say they’re hopeful the figure could be greatly reduced if the original cost order appeal is upheld and once taxes are applied.

The Marshes had been living a life of uncertainty for more than five years since first discovering the GM contamination, burdened with daily stress. Friends had warned the brave couple taking on the financial might of Monsanto and its backers over the principle of zero tolerance to GM would result in the reclusive pair lucky to be leaving the farm with the shirts on their backs.

Last week’s court decision also spells the end of a dream for the Marshes of running a self-sufficient organic farming and milling operation on their 330ha plush Kojonup property.

Mr Marsh said the emotional impact had taken a taken a heavy toll on both himself and his wife.

“Since the contamination and the subsequent legal action we took, we’ve had some very serious ups and downs but I have been very fortunate to have a wife that has been prepared to stand by me through thick and thin, ” he said

Mr Marsh said there was no protection in WA for organic growers.

“Clearly there is a fundamental problem in this State where a matter of GM contamination puts farmer against farmer,” he said.

“In Parliament, Terry Redman said matters in relation to the clean-up of a farm site contaminated with unwanted GM seed, the-then Agriculture Minister said they could be resolved by discussion with their neighbours and if discussion fails to resolve the matter, or occasionally growers may resort to common law,” Mr Marsh said. “Clearly this has not been the case in regards to the situation between me and my neighbour on all of those fronts.”

Mr Marsh said he and wife Sue now faced an uncertain future.

“I have lost all faith in the WA agriculture industry and the people within industry and government that are responsible for the decision making process,” he said.

“When we tried to get DAFWA to investigate the contamination only days after it happened, we quickly realised the department was not going to deal with the situation to our satisfaction and from then on we knew getting a sound resolution was going to be very difficult for us, ” he said.

Safe Food Foundation director Scott Kinnear said the organisation raised more than $1 million to fund Mr Marsh’s case, but doubted it could attract a similar amount to cover costs.

“When the court costs decision is made they’re going to come after Steve and Sue very quickly and it will most likely be a losing battle against time to raise enough money from supporters $50 and $100 donations to save the farm and keep the dream alive,” Mr Kinnear said.

“That is, of course, if we don’t receive a large donation from a supporter.”

Pastoralists and Graziers Association grains industry spokesman Gary McGill said anti-GM groups had used the case as a vehicle to attack the use of technology in WA farming.

“The way forward is now open. The attack on the use of GM technology in WA has failed and rightly so,” he said.

In his original judgment rejecting the damages claim, Justice Ken Martin said no evidence was presented showing any risk to people, animals or property from contact with GM canola.

Mr Baxter said he would be planting GM canola again this year after winning the case.

The matter should have been settled with a neighbourly chat and never taken to court, he said.

“We are relieved now that it is finally all over. It has been a long haul, five years in the legal system and family disruption, ” he said.

“I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong and that is why I stood my ground and didn’t back down.”

Monsanto, which collects royalties from the sale of GM canola seed and indemnified Mr Baxter on court costs, said it hoped similar disputes could be avoided in the future by different farming sectors working together and through good crop management practices.

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