Coexistence and common sense with GM

| June 12, 2014

A court found a farmer not responsible for genetically modified material blowing onto his neighbour’s organic farm. Professor of Agriculture Jim Pratley says the judgement is a victory of common sense.

The court case between farmers Marsh and Baxter in Western Australia ended with a common sense judgement. Marsh, the organic farmer, sued Baxter, the mainstream farmer with genetically modified (GM) canola, for the windrowed GM material that blew across the boundary fence onto Marsh’s field.  Although the GM material was ‘unintended presence’, the organic registration authorities wielded the big stick and de-registered the majority of the Marsh property as an accredited organic property, thus leading to the litigation attempt.

The Australian organic industry and its certifying bodies have declared that there is a zero tolerance to GM in their registered produce. This is at odds with their global counterparts where tolerance is granted. The proportions vary up to around 1% but more importantly, the cause and solution become the focus unless the act has been deliberate. The Australian standard has been shown up as unworkable. Biological systems are imperfect and a zero tolerance really has no long-term prospect of being a useful standard. It is to be hoped that there is some rationalisation of this stance so that respectful co-existence is the norm.

So, why the big hullabaloo about GM anyway? This is just a plant breeding technique. It is not new – the knowhow has been with us for around 30 years. GM food has been grown for nearly 20 years and trillions of meals have been consumed without incident. There is no evidence of harm but plenty of evidence of good. The quantity of insecticides used in Australian cotton, for example, is miniscule compared with that used pre-GM making the environment a much safer place. GM is now grown in many developing countries delivering a better living to farmers in those areas and a more secure food supply to their communities. More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries (19 developing countries) grew 175 million hectares of biotech crops in 2013 and the area continues to expand. The fear campaign that this is new and unproven is now laughable and the fear proponents should move on.

Interestingly the capability of biotechnology to reduce substantially the use of pesticides seems to be consistent with the requirement for no synthetic chemical use in organic and related production systems. The anti-GM standard is retained on the basis of the precautionary principle. Two decades of precaution does seem ‘overkill’. Logic suggests that GM has much to offer these systems in delivering crops that ‘do their own control’ yet logic seems to play little part in this agenda. Interestingly the Judge in the Marsh/Baxter case commented …”I point out that in this trial there was no empirical evidence presented to me about any such benefits in organically grown produce – other than the possibly higher prices it might achieve when sold on that labelled basis” . The logic therefore is in the niche marketing, which is successful even though the foundation on which it is based is relatively free of supporting evidence.

That said, mainstream agriculture could learn from their accreditation processes which are stringent and well enforced. Mainstream agriculture is resisting accreditation but it needs to embrace it as market demands tighten.

Back to the farmers – what about them? Well they are the losers, financially, socially and emotionally. Strains on the families and their communities have been horrendous and they deserve our thoughts. They will never get back what they had before this incident occurred. The organic grower seems to have been a pawn in a bigger agenda that has little to do with accidental presence of GM.

The faith in our justice system is strengthened by the trial outcome. It is a victory for common sense but let us hope no more pawns have to go through the suffering. Let common sense be dispensed beforehand.



  1. Allan Catlin

    Allan Catlin

    June 15, 2014 at 10:29 am

    GM crops

    I was so pleased to read your common sense article about the big GM debate. It was refreshingly logical, pointing out the lack of any concrete evidence of any harm coming from the genetic modification of plants. In an accelerating population growth world wide we must do all in our power to feed the millions. Great stuff, Jim.