Neighboring farmers fight landmark Australian GMO court case
Two neighboring farmers, a field of canola and a gust of wind are at the center of a landmark court case in Australia that could have consequences for the controversial growing of genetically modified crops in the country.
Steve Marsh is suing former childhood friend Michael Baxter after harvested seed heads from Baxter's genetically modified canola crop blew onto Marsh's farm in the state of Western Australia, court documents said, contaminating land used for his organic oat and wheat crops.
Marsh, stripped of his organic certification and export license for his oats, is claiming unspecified damages for loss of income in the civil negligence case, which opens on Monday in the West Australian Supreme Court.
It is the first time in Australia one farmer has sued another for negligence over contamination of organic crops by genetically modified organisms (GMO) and will set a precedent for future cases, lawyers said.
The case also illustrates the challenge Australia faces developing its agribusiness sector as it looks to become a "food bowl" for Asia amid rapidly growing demand for everything from grains to beef.
"People around the world are going to be looking at this," said Michael Blakeney, a law professor at the University of Western Australia who does advisory work for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. "It is testing whether a GMO farmer has a duty of care to a neighbor that's growing organic crops not to contaminate them."
Baxter's lawyer, Brian Bradley, declined to comment ahead of the trial, which is expected to last three weeks. Marsh and Baxter both declined to speak to Reuters. The former friends have not spoken to each other since the row erupted, local media have reported.
Baxter bought the seeds from Monsanto Co, the world's largest seed company.
After getting legal advice, Marsh opted not to sue the U.S. firm because of a non-liability contract Monsanto signs with all farmers who buy its seeds, said Scott Kinnear, director of the Safe Food Foundation, an organic farming advocacy group collecting donations to help fund Marsh's suit.
The case is likely to lead to regulations outlining boundaries between farms producing genetically modified crops and organic farms, lawyers and agribusiness experts said, potentially reducing the land available for cultivation. It could also change Australia's unique zero tolerance status for contamination of organic crops, they said.
Unlike the United States, the European Union and Japan, which allow trace amounts of GMO in organic foods in acknowledgement of contamination by wind or pollen transfer, Australia maintains a zero threshold.
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