2014 GMO legal case – neighbour vs neighbour

It was a landmark GMO legal case. A Western Australian farmer sued his neighbour after losing his organic status when GM canola seedheads blew onto his property. Steve Marsh can no longer sell his oats as organic. He’s been stripped of his organic certification and export licence. He sued for loss of income. This was the first civil damages case brought for contaminating organic crops by negligence. The court ruled against Marsh.

A number of issues arose in the case. There were claims that the organic standards in Australia are too high. In the USA, Europe and Japan, small amounts of GM material may be allowed in an organic crop before it loses organic status. The Australian standards demand 0%.  Now Marsh has lost his GMO legal case, there may be pressure for this to change.

The debate over whether a GMO farmer has a duty of care to avoid causing his neighbour to lose organic status on the basis of contamination did not appear to influence the decision. The court in its judgment stated the decision by NASAA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia) to de-certify Marsh was erroneous.  Because the court did not recognise the NASAA de-certification the court did not recognise the economic loss he suffered and dismissed the case.

In this GMO legal case, there were ideologies on each side of the argument. Those opposed to GMOs say the genetically modified crops have the potential to damage the environment by fostering herbicide-resistant weeds. They also claim that GMO crops in food may harm humans. Others say the crops are proven safe and are legal to grow in Western Australia.

The Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) subsequently proposed that the  Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council (OISCC) should tolerate up to 0.9 per cent GM material in organic produce. OISCC rejected the submission, based on World Trade Organization (WTO) international food standards. These guidelines state that GM material is not compatible with the principles of organic production, despite the fact that there is a tolerance level for GM material in organic products in the EU.

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