Western Australian farmers are up in arms as state authorities confirmed that the oat crop in an organic farm in Kojonup, southeast of capital Perth, has been contaminated by genetically modified canola.
The farm's organic certification has been suspended by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, and the farmer, Steve Marsh, stands to lose thousands in this year's harvest alone. About 70 per cent of his land been contaminated by GM seeds from a neighbouring property.
The contaminating seeds are called "Roundup Ready'' canola and developed by global biotechnology giant Monsanto.
The gene-modified seeds inoculate plants against Roundup, a herbicide also made by Monsanto.
The RR method is called a no-till system as it doesn't require the traditional tilling, but relies exclusively on herbicides to control weeds. The crop is sown directly into the soil, there is no follow-up cultivation. Weed control depends entirely on the herbicide - which is of course dutifully supplied by Monsanto.
RR is a smashing success in US, and Monsanto is reaping huge rewards as farmers are contractually prohibited from sowing the seeds they harvest. They will have to go back to the seed manufacturer only - failing which they will face legal consequences. While this kind of exploitation has been denounced, the contamination report reveals the dangers involved in GM crops.
Australian farmer Marsh is the first farmer in the state to have his organic status destroyed since Agriculture and Food Minister Terry Redman approved an exemption order in January, which permits the cultivation of GM crops in the state. The move brought WA in line with other crop-growing states including NSW and Victoria.
Mr Marsh says his livelihood is at stake.
"I'll lose my premiums on those products that I produce as organic," he said and is seeking legal advice.
He says he would not be surprised if more organic properties have been contaminated by genetically modified crops.
He says there are not enough safeguards in place to protect non-GM growers.
"Given the extent of the contamination on my property, it wouldn't surprise me if there's not other farmers that are in the same or similar situation to myself," he said.
"But I guess the Department of Agriculture is doing audits and maybe that will be picked up in those audits."
Monsanto has said it will give legal support to the GM canola grower if Mr Marsh takes legal action.
Western Australia's organic farming community is rallying behind Mr Marsh.
The state president of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Kim Hack, says Mr Marsh has the support of farmers across the state.
"We are extremely pleased and proud of him. He's taken a stand, he's put his livelihood, his reputation, on the line for the organic industry," he said.
"We're going to back him all the way and he's being backed up by conventional farmers as well."
Julie Newman from the Network of Concerned Farmers says this case highlights that GM farmers could face legal action if neighbouring properties are contaminated.
Ms Newman says the State Government has failed to listen to calls for a risk management strategy.
"The GM farmer should be worried because they are ultimately liable and this is an avenue where the non-GM farmer can say right we'll follow this example and we'll do the same and it could be a class action if you're not sure who causes it," she said.
Agriculture Minister Terry Redman says the government is working with Mr Marsh to try to regain his organic status.
He says while he is confident the incident is a one-off, the department will look at measures to prevent a repeat.
He also said WA GM protocols would be revised in light of the contamination, though there were no plans to reinstate a ban on the growing of GM canola.
"It would be preferable for industry to re-look at these at a national level, rather than have WA establish its own, state-based rules. DAFWA is prepared to provide input into such a process."
"This is an unfortunate incident. As far as I am aware, this situation has not arisen anywhere else in Australia, and is the only incident of this type reported in WA," Mr Redman said.
He also revealed that GM canola was planted across 70 thousand hectares of WA land this year.
"The feedback we're getting is that it has performed well in difficult conditions," Mr Redman said.
"A number of different farming systems have successfully co-existed in WA for many years, and I remain confident that we can maintain that co-existence."
Opposition agriculture minister Mick Murray has called on Mr Redman to 'clean up the mess'.
Mr Redman told Parliament in April 2009 that GM canola farmers could face expensive legal action by neighbours whose crops have been affected, Mr Murray said.