There is often nothing so bitter as a farmer vs. farmer dispute. Steve Marsh and Michael Baxter’s friendship is shattered after 45 years of playing as boys, working together as teens, and farming beside each other as men. They’re matched in a GM crop clash that digs deeper than the 45-year bond, and the whole world is watching, craning for a peek at agriculture’s version of a cage fight — and waiting on a touchstone outcome.
Marsh, 49, and Baxter, 48, farm adjacent land in Western Australia, as their families have done for over a century. In 2004, Marsh began steering his farm away from conventional agriculture, tapping the organic vein with his field crops and livestock, and gaining certified organic status that placed his operation in a strong financial position.
In 2010, partly in response to rye-grass problems, Baxter planted 210 acres of his 2,900 acre farm with Monsanto-produced Roundup Ready GM canola, buffer zones in place, and hoped it would yield well. Then he told Marsh about his GM plantings — and a wrenching feud was born. According to the The Australian, as harvest neared, Marsh “… asked Baxter to sign a letter acknowledging that if Marsh’s organic farm was contaminated with GM material, he understood legal action would follow. Baxter said he was appalled at the abrasiveness of the letter and the apparent determination of a close friend and neighbor to resort to the courts ahead of the usual friendly chat over the boundary fence, if any problems — at that point nonexistent — eventuated.”
Marsh wouldn’t sign the letter.
For more, see Sue Neale’s fine piece in The Australian: Farmers’ GM case is a world first
In November of 2010, during Baxter’s harvest, Marsh found canola trash beside his land and knew the inevitable had happened. He used a DNA strip tester and had the result in minutes — GMO positive. From The Global Mail: “After his DNA strip test, Marsh says he discovered the presence of GM canola on around 70 percent of his property and up to 1.5 kilometers in from his boundary fence. Each plant, he knew, had the potential to continue sprouting for at least 15 years.”
A great long read: Steve Marsh and The Bad Seeds
Marsh’s organic certification was dead and his production contracts nullified. But Marsh didn’t go after deep-pocketed Monsanto (maker of the GM canola), instead, he charged Baxter with culpability and the civil case will begin in front of the Western Australia Supreme Court Feb. 10.
Two hundred and fifty miles north, producer John Snooke grows GM canola and believes organic certification and “zero-tolerance” should be changed. From the Mail: “In Snooke’s book, Steve Marsh as plaintiff is going after the wrong guy. The organic certifier NASAA needs to rethink its ‘zero tolerance’ approach to GM, Snooke says, and create a more realistic threshold for when so-called ‘contamination’ occurs.”
The Marsh vs. Baxter case is a web of legal, ideological, and ecological strands — a nightmare to adjudicate. “In agriculture, storms happen, water flows, wind carries unintended matter in different places. That’s why we need thresholds. To allow neighbors to coexist and allow trade to flourish,” Snooke says.
Maybe it's not a case of fault or blame; just two farmers literally on opposite sides of the fence, caught up in the GM-organic tangle — agriculture’s version of the Gordian knot. Whatever ruling or precedent the court lays down, there will be no handshakes or happy endings, as Marsh says “… I also can’t help but know a lot of what Michael has gone through; one thing I do know is that there’s no real winners in this case, whoever wins.”