Marsh case forces change

Lisa Morrison and Rueben Hale
NASAA general manager Ben Copeman.

The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia says the recent landmark GM canola case has brought about a critical rethink in the way the organisation defines organic certification.

In May, the Supreme Court delivered a sweeping rejection of any basis for an $85,000 damages claim by Kojonup farmer Steve Marsh against neighbour Michael Baxter, after GM canola pods had blown on to his organic certified property.

NASAA had decertified the Marshes' canola because of the contamination.

Association general manager Ben Copeman said hard lessons had been learnt in the aftermath of the landmark trial, but stopped short of taking the blame for the Marshes' losses.

Mr Copeman, based in South Australia, was a guest speaker at a biodynamic and organic certification standards forum held between Albany and Denmark on the weekend, which attracted more than 60 growers from Kojonup, Tambellup, Cranbrook, Harvey, Albany, Denmark, Mt Barker and Wellstead.

He said the NASAA had received twice as many inquiries into organic certification this year, with "quite a few" coming from the Great Southern region.

Mr Copeman said the GMO battle publicity had contributed to the rise.

"I believe there is a significant move towards organic crops as a result of the recent court case," he said.

"People are moving away from conventional farming because you can no longer rely on a standard of conventional farming and say 'my crop is safe' or 'my crop does not contain any genetically modified organisms' — so out of that there has been a push, I believe, from conventional farmers to become certified organic so they can say 'my crop does not contain GMs'.

"There are a lot of conventional growers who are very much opposed to GM in their food chain and we are seeing, I believe, a bit of a growth in numbers because of that outcome."

Mr Marsh and his wife Sue attended the forum but would not be drawn on current court proceedings.

"I am here to meet and thank our supporters down this way personally," he said.

Mr Copeman was also reluctant to discuss any potential ramifications over the Supreme Court ruling, which Mr Marsh has since appealed.

"The bottom line is we have got to move on," he said.

"There is going to be fallout, there is going to be backlash, there is going to be ramifications one way or another and we just have to move on and battle those as we go and focus on the positives of both.

"The bottom line is that Michael Baxter grew a perfectly legal crop, Steve Marsh was doing a perfectly legal operation himself and somewhere in the middle their respect for each other got lost … that is going to take time to heal.

"But we are here now to try to mend some of those bridges, talk to people and try to put that balance back into place again … I think these sorts of events are a step in the right direction."

In the case, Judge Kenneth Martin found the NASAA had "overreacted" when it decertified the Marshes' Eagle Rest farm in 2010.

Mr Martin said there was no definition in the NASAA or national standards that defined "genetic contamination".

He also found that GM was harmless to people, animals and property and the there was "no risk" of genetic transference from the pods of canola that had blown on to his property and subsequently germinated into eight canola plants.

"We've learnt that the contract we asked our operators to sign didn't necessarily reflect what was expected in the Standard," Mr Copeman said.

"So, our lawyers are analysing that and will comeback to us with a clear and legally acceptable definition of GM contamination and what would be determined as contamination."

But Mr Copeman also said the NASAA had never openly admitted it had made a mistake by decertifying the Marshes.

"However, I'm prepared to look at Justice Martin's findings from a legal viewpoint to see if we have," he said.

"But the fact of the matter is that the people that made the decision to decertify Eagle Rest followed the guidelines and rules at that time."