Inquiry risks contaminating GM debate

Published 20180212

The Government of Western Australia is currently running an ‘Inquiry into mechanisms for compensation for economic loss to farmers in Western Australia caused by contamination by genetically modified (GM) material’. The inquiry continues the discussion around how – or indeed whether – agricultural practices that use GM material, and those that don’t (predominately organically certified agriculture) can co-exist.

This has been a particularly contentious issue since 2010 in WA, when organic farmer Steve Marsh sued his neighbour Michael Baxter for damages, after losing organic accreditation when GM canola from Mr Baxter’s farm entered Mr Marsh’s farm. The case (and subsequent appeal) was lost and Mr Marsh suffered significant economic loss; hence the current inquiry, which is investigating whether in these types of circumstances there should be compensation for losses incurred.

However, the inquiry is potentially missing a fundamental point which risks placing the WA Government at risk of unintended consequences which could be far-reaching and calamitous for agriculture.

Contamination by GM material in the Marsh case caused economic loss because organic certification was lost. Organic certification in Australia is voluntary, arbitrary and based on standards set by market pull rather than science or law. Certification is performed by several different organisations (with differing standards), accredited by the Department of Agriculture under the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. Unlike much of the rest of the world, in Australia, organic certification standards also have zero tolerance for contamination.

This inquiry risks operating under the assumption that organic certification standards are unquestionable. To resolve the same issue the Environment and Public Affairs Committee could have just as easily titled the Inquiry: ‘Whether organic certification standards are practical, reasonable and enforceable’.

If this Inquiry finds that there should be economic compensation mechanisms for GM contamination (other than those that are available under common law), it sets a precedent that the WA government would not want to establish; ie. market-based, arbitrary accreditation standards taking priority over legal, best-practice farming methods.

A hypothetical example of this precedent in application could be animal welfare. There is a rapidly growing and very vocal movement to end animal agriculture. Let’s say an extreme no-animal-agriculture food accreditation label was established which guaranteed that at no stage during the food production process were any animal products used (even inadvertently, eg. in fertiliser) – with zero tolerance in administering this requirement.

Then let’s say that a farm accredited under this label loses that accreditation because manure from the farm next door ends up in the no-animal-agriculture accredited field via rainfall runoff. The no-animal-agriculture accredited farm thus incurs an economic loss – assuming the label attracts a premium – from a perfectly legal activity being carried out on the farm next door. Under the principles that may eventuate under this Inquiry the no-animal-agriculture farm would then need to be economically compensated.

Consumers have every right to purchase products that fit their value systems and beliefs, and farmers have every right to produce and supply products accordingly. But value systems and beliefs are voluntary and can change with market forces and trends. To protect these values through economic compensation mechanisms which go beyond those afforded through the common law sets a dangerous – Sir Humphrey might say ‘courageous’ – precedent.

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