GM farming and organic – the facts post Marsh v Baxter

By Australian Organic chair Andrew Monk

Organic food under Australian Certified Organic will remain non GMO, as consumers expect. We will not permit the situation where our farmer members are placed on the front line in future anti GMO campaigns, pitting them against neighbours and their community. We are also a pro organic farmer movement and we need to remain sensitised to the myriad of challenges our farmer members already face day to day.

Australian Organic is conscious there is some inevitable confusion and misunderstanding about implications post the Marsh v Baxter case for organic farmers neighbouring GM cropping.

The following will help you understand the implications for your business as well as what Australian Organic will continue doing.

Our thoughts are with the Marshes and the Baxters for the ordeal they have endured. Our understanding is the impact for the broader organic industry is not so dire and we expect in many regards it will be business as usual. We are planning for the organic grain sector’s significant growth and this court outcome should not affect this.

Vigilance, risk management, audits and testing will continue to be required by growers and Australian Certified Organic to ensure our supply chains and end food products remain non-GM, as expected by consumers and required by export markets. This level of caution is far from desired but it’s in line with the practical realities organic producers already face in managing risks from pesticide exposure and other contaminations.

If you are concerned about potential impacts on your farm from GM crops in your region, or if you are considering moving into broadacre organic production (particularly canola), please email or call Australian Certified Organic 07 3350 5716 to find out how to manage these risks. The organic industry has managed GM cotton as an issue for some years (eliminating byproducts from use and managing adventitious plant presence). While canola is a ‘leakier’ crop, genetically many of the principles for management of such cropping systems remain the same.

Our continuing series of webinars for Australian Organic members will feature some on GM. Watch out for future member announcements about these webinars and other GM-related information.

Outcome doesn’t mean relaxing organic industry standards

The crops Michael Baxter grew are different from the ones Steve Marsh grew. This was not a same-crop, GM versus organic situation – which meant contamination of the organic crop, let alone end product, would not, and did not, occur. Steve Marsh grows cereal crops, whereas his neighbour grew GM canola. We believe this was a major factor the judge took into consideration in his final judgement.

The hype and fear campaign suggesting the organic grain sector will suffer from this judgement is unfounded.

There is also a fundamental difference between dealing with environmental and neighbouring farm realities and delivering non-GM products to shoppers.

Australian Organic hopes the lessons from this case will assist organic, conventional and GM farmers alike to avoid what has occurred in this instance. There are no real winners from court cases such as this and it is important our industry works collaboratively to avoid a repeat of this situation.

We have recommended a review of the private guidelines relating to planting GM crops and the need for consideration of legislation to strengthen state government laws.

Similarly, the court case highlights the need for the organic industry to review and tighten its own protocols and certification management, to deliver uniformity and certainty for those on the front line of this issue: the farmers who feed us and risk their own investments.

Potential for foreign genetic presence in our farming environments, similar to unwelcome pesticides, is undesirable but a reality we will have to continue to manage.

The call from some suggesting the national organic standard should immediately specify a permissible level of GM presence is misplaced for two reasons. First, organic standards worldwide prohibit the intentional presence of GMOs in organic products and only the EU has specified a permissible level of adventitious presence – the marketplace still expects non-GM organic products. Second, Australia’s having to face the supply chain and end product ‘contaminations’ that markets such as the US have faced already is some way off. Imported products from markets such as the US should have us more concerned in terms of GMO presence than neighbouring farming activities in Australia operating within the law and in accordance with the code for use of GM materials.

Australian Organic will continue to stand up for and look after our farmer member interests to ensure they are able to live and farm within their communities and do not bear the brunt of anti-GMO – as opposed to pro-organic – campaigning.

The organic industry needs to review risk management policies and focus more on ensuring end organic products remain non-GM, rather than expecting zero GMO presence in the ambient farming environment – not ideal for those passionate about the anti-GM cause but a practical reality all of us face.

Certified organic foods remain consumers’ best means of reducing their exposure to synthetic chemicals and other agents, including GMOs, they don’t bargain on having in their purchases.

There is a range of reasons organic foods command a premium. Some of that premium relates to the extra care and diligence required in the production and certification process to ensure the integrity and value of organics.

Australian Organic will continue the One logo says it all campaign in 2014 and 2015 with clear messages about what organic farming does not include as well as the positive messages organic farming and food offers for all.

We have also allocated additional resources in the past year, with more to come, in testing and spot auditing our supply chains to give everyone ongoing confidence in organic products. This includes GMO testing.

Organic farming methods are at the cutting edge of the future of sustainable farming, delivering foods consumers are demanding and shining light on a farming pathway ahead without reliance on synthetic agrochemicals or GM technology.

By working together we continue growing the organic industry and seeing the conversion of more farming, and in particular broadacre cropping country, to organic methods. That has to be a win for all.

Read our media release in response to the decision.
Read the Judgement.