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Marsh neighbour appoints lawyers

Questions have been raised over WA farmers’ ability to “discuss the issues” and “come to mutually agreeable solutions” with regard to GM contamination in the State. Kojonup farmer Stephen Marsh knows this reality all too well.THE most significant development over the last week with regard to what’s been dubbed “WA’s GM contamination debacle” is that Kojonup GM farmer Michael Baxter has appointed a lawyer to act on his behalf.

Mr Baxter’s GM canola allegedly contaminated neighbour Stephen Marsh’s organic farm last year.

Agriculture and Food Department test results announced on Christmas Eve showed the non-organic contamination of canola plants were of the GM variety.

The contamination case has proceeded through its many stages and both Mr Marsh and his lawyer Richard Huston conceded that legal representation was a good idea.

“To be honest with you I think it’s a helpful development because it’s easy for people who lack the experience to trip themselves up and no one, not me at least, wants to have an outcome where someone was unfamiliar with what was taking place,” Mr Huston said.

“I’m actually quite pleased that it has occurred and I’ve already been in correspondence with (Mr Baxter’s lawyers) and acknowledged that from now on our dialogue will be with the lawyers representing each party because it will be a lot safer for all parties concerned.”

The very complex issue has captured the interest of growers throughout WA and on a national scale.

“When you’re looking at the whole issue from a distance farmers will often say, bare in mind that I’ve got a small farm myself, that the farmers should be able to sort it out themselves,” Mr Huston said.

“It’s really quite a condescending, simplistic and ill-informed position to take.

“Especially in this instance when the consequences rising from the matter could be massive, possibly even on an international scale and in that context, two farmers leaning over the fence and having a chat is not going to provide a solution.”

Mr Huston had spent several days last week preparing a Brief to Council which included the facts, letters, reports and test results for the presiding barrister as background in case an out of court settlement cannot be reached and the contamination case was taken to court.

An interesting position taken by the Agriculture and Food Department was uncovered in a number of fact sheets dated back to January 2010.

“The fact sheets deal with what a farmer should do if a dispute arises over GM contamination in the future,” Mr Huston said.

“And each of those three fact sheets state that the common law is the appropriate manner to pursue damages claims with regard to contamination.

“This means that the Agriculture and Food Department see the resolution of disputes between neighbours over contamination as a matter for the courts.

“So I think it’s unfair for people to be critical of me or my client in being forced to seek compensation through the courts when that was effectively what the Government advised growers to do.”

Mr Huston said a mature democracy should be able to handle an “intense dialogue” on the GM issue without it getting personal.

“Despite what opposing groups say, Stephen and Sue Marsh have been very restrained and dignified considering they’re going to miss out on every second pay cheque from now on,” he said.

“The case will only go to court if Mr Marsh doesn’t get compensated voluntarily.”

The Agriculture and Food Department’s January 2010 Factsheet titled Genetically Modified Crops and Farmer Liability states “If the area sown to GM crops in WA increases in coming years the best way forward for both the non-GM and the GM industries is for farmers to discuss the issues with their neighbours and come to mutually agreeable solutions.”

Mr Huston agreed, but asked what happens when that fails?

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