Former childhood friends embark on test court case over GM crops

Two neighbouring farmers, a field of canola, and a gust of wind are at the centre of a landmark court case in Australia that may have consequences for the 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 licence for his oats, is claiming unspecified damages for loss of income in the civil negligence case, which is being heard 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. “It is testing whether a GMO farmer has a duty of care to a neighbour that’s growing organic crops not to contaminate them.”

Baxter and Marsh 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.

Upon legal advice, Marsh opted not to sue the US firm due to 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.


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