Global biotech and agricultural giant Monsanto lent financial support to a West Australian farmer who was being sued by a neighbor over alleged cross-contamination of the latter’s organic crops, company officials have said.
The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) reported that the organic farmer, Steve Marsh, took neighbor Michael Baxter to court after Marsh’s organic canola crop allegedly became contaminated in 2010 by seeds from Baxter’s property. Marsh said the contamination occurred when genetically modified canola seeds blew over from his former childhood friend’s nearby field during a harvesting process called swathing. Marsh said in court that this resulted in the loss of organic certification for more than 70 percent of his land.
In May 2014, the Western Australia Supreme Court tossed Marsh’s claim and awarded Baxter more than $800,000 in legal expenses.
Marsh appealed the ruling, however, and in March, the same court ordered Baxter to disclose any financial assistance he has received from both Monsanto and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia, an agricultural industry group.
For its part, Monsanto said in a statement that the legal battle had been difficult for the families and communities that are involved in the dispute. The agri-giant also justified its assistance.
Monsanto says it did not influence the direction of the case, but money talks
“It is regrettable that neighbors and friends ended up in court and it is the last thing anyone in Australian agriculture wants to see,” the statement, attributed to Monsanto Australia’s managing director Daniel Kruithoff, said.
“Both farmers were entitled to seek support for this legal dispute so that their arguments could be heard in court,” said Kruithoff. “It was only fair that the Baxters received much needed support given the extensive fundraising efforts of Steve Marsh’s supporters.”
“Monsanto Australia contributed to the Baxters’ legal costs to ensure they could defend themselves in court,” said the statement, adding that the company’s support was confined to legal costs and that it did not exert any management over the case.
Kruithoff would not disclose how much Monsanto had contributed financially to Baxter’s legal defense thus far, but he did note that the company would continue its support during the appeal process.
“We were approached by Baxter’s lawyers early on to understand if we would provide support and as they were our customers, we were very happy to support them,” he said.
Marsh’s effort has been backed financially by the Safe Food Foundation, an organic farming group that has established an online fund for Marsh.
The foundation’s director, Scott Kinnear, told ABC that his organization had contributed at least $750,000 to Marsh’s defense.
John Snooke with the Pastoralists and Graziers Association told ABC he was not aware of Monsanto’s financial assistance to Baxter, but he said he was happy the biotech giant was on board.
“Baxter had to defend himself”
“It has come as a surprise to us … but we need providers of technology in agriculture to defend that technology when it is being attacked,” he said.
“Michael Baxter had to defend himself,” he continued. “He had used a legal technology, the State Government is happy for grain growers to use GM canola, so he did need help.”
Malcolm McCusker, a lawyer for Marsh, declined to comment.
Some praised last year’s Supreme Court ruling, noting that had it gone for Marsh, it would have led to new rules creating larger buffer zones between GMO and non-GMO crops, and that would have resulted in fewer acres available for harvest.
Reuters noted that the U.S., Japan and the European Union permit trace amounts of GMOs in organic foods, but Australia has a zero-trace threshold.
In its ruling, the high court said that only some of Marsh’s organic crop contained GMO canola, and that it could have easily been removed.