In December 2014, the Organic Industry Standards and
Certification Council (OISCC) rejected a
submission by the Western Australian Department of Agriculture and
Food (DAFWA) to increase the allowable threshold
for genetically modified (GM) material in
certified organic food.
The decision means that a zero tolerance approach to
contamination by GM organisms will continue to apply in relation to
certification of organic products.
In this Alert, Senior Associate Ryan White explores the decision
and its implications.
The existing standards
The National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce
(National Standard) provides that where product is
known to be contaminated by GM organisms or their by-products, the
product must be excluded from sale as organic or bio-dynamic. The
National Standard also prohibits GM crops, livestock or
agricultural products being grown or produced on the same farm as
their organic counterparts.
Questions over existing organic certification practices were
raised earlier in the year by the Supreme Court of Western
Australia in Marsh v Baxter, where commentary was made by the Court
regarding the rigid application (or misapplication) of a zero
tolerance approach by one certifying body (the National Association
for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) to
contamination by GM material. Further details of that decision are
included in our earlier
In its (rejected) submission, DAFWA sought amendments to the
National Standard to:
Provide that products:
known to be contaminated by an unlicensed genetically modified
organism or a by-product of such an organism; or
containing more than 0.9 percent of a licensed genetically
modified organism or a by-product of such an organism, be excluded
from sale as being organic or bio-dynamic; and
Permit the coexistence of different production systems on the
DAFWA's submission contrasted the current zero tolerance
approach in Australian organic products with the threshold of 0.9
percent GM content adopted in the European Union, suggesting that
the more stringent Australia requirement may act as a disincentive
to local organic producers. The submission also suggested that
Australian growers should be able to choose a variety of production
systems on one farm to meet the needs of different customers,
noting that existing requirements in the National Standard could
ensure appropriate protection of the organic component of a mixed
In Marsh v Baxter, the certification practices of the NASAA (a
member of the OISCC) were heavily criticised by the Court. The
NASAA assessed that an airborne incursion of GM canola swathes
posed an "unacceptable risk" of "contamination"
and accordingly withdrew organic certification of Marsh's
property. The Court, while noting that no criticism was made of the
NASAA standards (which mirror the National Standard), found that
those standards were misapplied and that in Marsh's case, a
zero tolerance approach was incorrectly taken where there was no
risk of contamination arising.
The OISCC's decision means that the status quo is preserved
and a zero tolerance approach will continue to apply to
contamination of organic products by GM organisms. Producers
wishing to maintain their organic or biodynamic certification must
continue to be mindful of the zero tolerance approach and ensure
that appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent contamination
by GM material in their production systems. It remains to be seen
if any change occurs in the way certifying bodies approach the
question of what constitutes "contamination".
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