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We face same uphill battles

This opinion piece was orginally published in the Countryman on the 1st of March, 2012

You don't usually think of Australian and Canadian farmers as being similar.

Australian farmers struggle with drought year in, year out. Canadian farmers spend five months of the year with our fields covered in snow. As the past 10 days travelling through rural Australia showed me though, we are facing the same uphill battles.

I am a fourth generation wheat farmer from the prairies of Saskatchewan. Much the same as Australia, family farms in Canada are struggling to make a profit.

The price of grain is low, the cost of seed, fertiliser, chemicals and diesel is ever increasing, and it is almost impossible to find labour when the mines or oil patch are willing to give employees an extra $100, 000 pay packet.

Many of these pressures stem from a concentration of power of the agribusiness sector over family farmers.

In Canada, these issues have been exacerbated by the introduction of genetically modified (GM) canola grown now in Canada for over 15 years.

Given the problems we have had with GM contamination in Canada it is now impossible to market non-GM canola I would have thought the Australian Government wise enough to put the liability of containing GM crops back onto the patent holder, usually Monsanto, rather than onto the struggling farmer.

In Canada, any farmer who is found to have Monsanto's patented GM seed on their property is liable to pay Monsanto for that seed regardless of whether it blew over the fence or fell from the equipment of custom harvesters. Does this sound fair?

Since the late 1990s Monsanto has aggressively pursued hundreds of North American farmers with this illogical liability scheme. Over 700 cases have been settled out of court and over 120 farmers have refused to back down and gone to court.

I met WA farmer Steve Marsh at a public meeting in Narrogin last week and he explained the background of his developing court case. When he lost his organic certification because GM canola from his neighbour's property washed over his farm, he had no choice under Australian law but to sue his high school friend
and neighbour for damages. I was flabbergasted. As a farmer, your neighbours are your support and safety net. I cannot think of a worse way to divide rural communities.

What I can't work out is why the company that markets and profits from patented GM seeds is not charged with the cost of financial harm to farmers who lose their markets due to GM contamination?

Common sense would dictate that if Monsanto has any rights to its product after it is bought by a farmer (of which it does, namely that a farmer cannot save the seed he grows to plant the next year) then it should also have responsibility for ensuring their product is not polluting those who do not want it.

In 2004, Canadian farmers rejected the commercialisation of GM wheat. A survey of our global markets showed that 82 per cent of our customers simply did not want it.

The Canadian Government requested that Monsanto retract its application for GM wheat, which it did.

So I was keen to ask Australian farmers why Australia was being touted as the first place in the world to grow GM wheat. Do they want it? Could they sell it?

The anecdotal response from farmers was that they were dubious about GM wheat. A recent report by the Australian Grain Growers Association closes the case for me.

Matt Gehl, 27, is a fourth generation wheat farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada. Matt toured Australia recently as a union delegate to discuss the threats facing wheat farmers in Australia and Canada.

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