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Landmark: Organic Farmer Sues Neighbor For Cross-Contamination

Australia farmer Steve Marsh

Steve Marsh. Image source:

An Australian organic farmer is suing a neighboring grower for GMO contamination of his land.

The first-of-its-kind lawsuit could set a precedent and land a major blow to biotech giant Monsanto, if farmer Steve Marsh wins his case. Farmers have attempted to sue Monsanto and GMO seeds competitor DuPont on GMO contamination or cross-contamination grounds in the United States, but no American farmers have ever successfully done what Marsh hopes to do.

The organic farmer is the first to attempt to make the issue a property rights battle and actually sue the individual who planted and cultivated the genetically engineered crops. Since 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers for reusing its patented genetically modified seeds. According to Daily Finance, Monsanto has fought and won, on average, one lawsuit every three weeks for the past 16 years.

In Australia, there is zero-tolerance for GMO traces in organic crops. In the United States, small percentages of genetically modified or non-natural substances can be present and the harvest still labeled as organic. Organic farmers in America would likely face a tougher battle in cross-contamination lawsuits unless the GMO traces surpassed the amounts allowable under existing regulations.

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Marsh’s battle began in 2010 when he discovered that his organic crops had been contaminated by a neighbor’s genetically modified rapeseed/canola crops. The fellow grower’s harvest was reportedly planted with Monsanto Roundup Ready seeds. Due to the GMO contamination, the Australian organic farmer lost the organic status on 70 percent of his growing area, costing him $85,000 in earnings, he said.

If the Australian court determines that is it unreasonable for the organic industry to have zero tolerance for genetically modified crops, citizens will no longer have the right to eat GMO-free food. The international law firm of Slater and Gordon has taken on Marsh’s case for the sake of public interest, but legal fees for the organic grower continue to mount due to the need to hire expert witnesses and also because of related court fees. The high cost of fighting back against the biotech industry has likely deterred many farmers and consumers from embarking upon a similar battle. Marsh’s court case began in mid-February.

If Marsh wins the property rights lawsuit, farmers utilizing GMO seeds could begin to seriously rethink their growing practices. If the neighbor is held liable for contaminating the organic farmer’s wheat and oat crops, a flurry of similar lawsuits could spring up. The thought process behind the GMO contamination lawsuit is similar to arguments made when a company is deemed liable for runoff that contaminates adjacent land.

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Meanwhile, in the US the USDA is now urging organic and non-GMO farmers to “co-exist” with growers who employ genetically engineered cultivation practices. As Off The Grid News reported, the new “farmer education” initiative is supposed to help prevent GMO contamination. Opponents of genetically modified seeds and chemical herbicides think the federal agency has missed the point entirely. The Center for Food Safety and similar advocacy groups are calling for the USDA to draft a mandatory GMO contamination policy and not simply rely on the good will of those who make a living in the agriculture industry.

An excerpt from a Center for Food Safety release about cross-contamination reads:

As usual, the agency’s proposal reads like it was written by the biotech industry. Despite acknowledging the very real threat to organic and non-GE farmers of contamination by genetically engineered crops, USDA’s recommendations would make a bad situation even worse. USDA’s “co-existence” plan would institutionalize an allowable level of transgenic contamination in crops across the U.S. If implemented, the proposal would inappropriately require the victims of contamination – organic and conventional growers – to buy insurance or pay into a fund to compensate themselves for unwanted contamination, lost markets and other damages.

A petition being circulated by the food safety group calls for a moratorium on any new genetically crops until mandatory best practices standards can be created and approved.

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