The Public Policy

Australia Gives Credence to Organic-Food Nonsense

No, GMOs don't ‘contaminate’ organics.

By 7.2.14

Canola field in New South Wales (Fir0002, Wikimedia Commons)

Organic activists are forever trying to convince American consumers that modern production agriculture is somehow unethical, that the food at the local grocery store is somehow unsafe. Now they'll likely take a new tactic, pioneered by a judge in Australia who is on his way to creating a legal environment that will spur countless lawsuits between farmers planting biotech crops and their neighbors using conventional seed. If these activists are successful Down Under, their counterparts in the United States will doubtless try to follow suit, dealing a blow to modern agriculture and American farmers in the process.

During the Australia’s fall harvest-season way back in 2010, an organic farmer by the name of Steven Marsh noticed some of his neighbor’s genetically-engineered canola had blown onto his fields. So he decided to sue his neighbor, Michael Baxter, a person with whom he had been friends until that fateful day, based on the global organic industry’s and his organic certifier’s “zero tolerance” for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

Four years later we finally arrive at the outcome to this trial. The judge ruled in May that Baxter will not have to pay $85,000 in damages based on Marsh’s claim that he had “contaminated” the organic fields. But in his judgment summary, Justice Kenneth Martin left the door wide open to future claims, writing that “GM canola only posed a risk of transferring genetic material if a canola seed germinated…and then later cross-fertilized through its pollen being exchanged with another compatible species.”

In short, since Baxter’s canola could never pollinate the cereal crop Marsh was growing (canola and cereal crops are not “compatible species”), the judge dismissed Marsh’s claim. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that anti-GMO organic activists will simply find a different case, one in which the crops in question can cross-pollinate.

Rest assured, they will find such a case; their very existence depends on it. Growers of GMO canola have, of course, organic canola fields to fear. But also organic broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, or cauliflower, all of which are in the same brassica family as canola and are hence compatible.

The danger will grow as more genetically modified crops are put into Australian production: GMO soybeans, corn, potatoes, and sugar beets are already approved there but not yet in use. Any organic activist growing these crops conventionally could be the next to launch a punitive action just because his neighbor chose to grow a GMO variety.

Until this May ruling, there was no such thing as contamination by GMOs in Australia, mirroring the state of affairs in the United States and Canada, where organic farmers are only prevented from using GMOs—the same as they’re prevented from using synthetic herbicides. And just as organic farmers do not face decertification when their crop comes into contact with small amounts of herbicides from a neighboring field, they likewise have never faced decertification for coming into tangential contact with GMOs—until Marsh and Justice Martin came along.

Before this trial, the best that anti-GMO organic activists could do was contend in the court of public opinion that GMOs “contaminate” organic crops. This is now no longer debatable in Australia. Advantage organic activists.

It gets worse. Martin’s ruling will indefinitely delay approval of the GMO wheat currently under development in Australia, while also delaying adoption of the other crops listed above, in spite of the fact that they are all grown elsewhere without issue. Again, advantage organic activists.

Meanwhile, agricultural authorities—such as Andrew Weidemann of the Grain Producers of Australia and John Snooke of The Pastoralists and Graziers Association—are so busy celebrating the pyrrhic victory that they don’t even see what’s coming. Instead of pressing on with the good fight, they’re calling for Australia’s organic industry to accept a 0.9 percent tolerance level for GMO contamination, assuming this will put a stop to all future litigation.

But it’s not the threshold that’s the issue. It’s the very idea of GMO contamination of an organic crop that’s at the root of the problem.

If Australian farmers want to avoid going backward like European farmers are—enduring successive crop failures, protesting for the right to grow GMOs while officials import GMO shipments from the United States and Canada—they must establish the same conditions that exist in Canada and the United States: Cross-pollination with GMOs does not constitute contamination of an organic crop. Not ever, not under any circumstances. Full stop. Indeed, the acceptance of this premise is the reason there has never been a single case in the United States or Canada where an organic farmer tried to drag his neighbor into court like this.

Just because organic activists have concocted a marketing scheme for their products, it does not follow that the rest of us should play along. Establishing a threshold limit on GMO content in non-GMO organic food will only give consumers the false impression that something is indeed wrong with GMOs, precisely what organic activists claim.

Organic activists can describe all the horrific things they believe will happen if an organic crop cross-pollinates with a GMO: increased rates of cancer, autism…you name it. But this is all so much cultural drivel in the end, without any basis in peer reviewed research or even a single replicable experiment. And by failing to respond to such flawed thinking when it’s applied outside the organic sector, we lend credence to it, along with every organic activist’s idiosyncratic view of how they believe farming should be practiced.

The world is watching. It’s time for Australia to stop playing along with organic zealots.

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About the Author

Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector. He is the author of Is it Organic? and of numerous articles in defense of genetic engineering.