Europe's second-highest court on Friday (13 December) overturned a decision by the European Commission to allow the cultivation and sale of a genetically modified potato developed by German chemicals group BASF.
In 2010, the European Commission authorised the cultivation in the EU of Amflora, a genetically-modified potato developed by German chemical company BASF, marking the bloc's first GM cultivation approval in 12 years.
The decision included strict cultivation conditions to prevent GM potatoes from remaining in fields after harvest and to ensure that Amflora's seeds are not inadvertently disseminated into the wider environment, the Commission explained, in a bid to allay cross-contamination fears.
The decision was based on a series of favourable safety assessments carried out over the years by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Amflora is not meant for human consumption and is cultivated mainly to provide starch for the paper industry.
The General Court of the European Union said the Commission had failed to follow the bloc's rules when approving the Amflora potato, which is genetically modified to produce extra starch for use in the paper industry.
While Amflora is no longer grown in Europe - BASF withdrew the product in 2012, citing opposition to the technology - the ruling raises new concerns about the EU's complex and much-criticised approval system for GMO crops.
"Because the Commission significantly failed to fulfil its procedural obligations, the General Court has annulled the contested decisions," the court said in a statement.
The Commission and BASF were not immediately available for comment.
The surprise approval of Amflora was one of the first decisions taken by the EU's then-health commissioner, John Dalli, who took office in February 2010. Dalli was forced to resign from the Commission last year after being linked to a tobacco bribery scandal.
It was only the second time a genetically modified plant had been approved for cultivation in Europe, and prompted an angry response from environmental campaigners and consumer groups who strongly oppose the technology.
It also led to a legal challenge against the decision by Hungary, supported by other EU countries opposed to GMOs, including France, Austria and Poland.
The Commission first proposed the cultivation and sale of Amflora in 2007, following a positive scientific assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Following the failure of EU government ministers and officials to approve or reject the proposal, the Commission exercised its power to grant approval unilaterally in 2010.
But in its judgment, the General Court said that following the publication of an updated scientific opinion by EFSA in 2009, the Commission should have submitted new proposals for approval by EU governments rather than simply adopting its 2007 version.
"The Commission infringed the procedural rules of the systems for authorising GMOs in the European Union," the court concluded.
Currently, only one GMO crop is grown commercially in Europe - an insect-resistant maize developed by Monsanto. It is sown on about 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of farmland, mainly in Spain.
That level is dwarfed by an estimated 170 million hectares of GMO crop cultivation globally, mainly in the Americas and parts of Asia.
While repeated EU scientific assessments have concluded that GMO crops are as safe for humans and the environment as their conventional counterparts, consumer opposition to the technology in Europe remains strong.
Anti-GMO campaigners at Greenpeace applauded the Court’s decision and called on the European Commission to draw the full consequences of it by withdrawing its authorisation for other genetically modified crops.
According to Greenpeace, the Commission followed the same flawed procedure when approving other GM products such as DuPont’s GM maize 1507.
“Today’s legal judgment demolishes the Commission plans to rush through the approval of Pioneer-DuPont’s GM maize 1507 for cultivation,” said Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero. “The Commission must withdraw its proposal, in line with EU legal requirements,” Contiero said.
In the European Parliament, the Greens/EFA political faction said the decision shed serious doubts about the Commission’s role in GM crop approvals.
“The pro-GM tendency of the Commission is no secret but that the Commission did not respect the rules governing authorisations indicates its gung-ho nature with regard to this highly controversial technology,” said Bart Staes MEP, the Green’s food safety and environment spokesperson.
“It is scandalous that the Commission is trying to bulldoze through the authorisation of this GMOs in spite of the massive opposition of EU citizens, as well as member state governments.”
The Greens called on EU governments to play their part in the EU’s complex GMO approval procedure by “freezing all potential or pending GMO authorisations,” including DuPont’s genetically modified maize 1507, marketed as Herculex outside the EU.
Beyond this, the Greens called on the EU to review its broader GMO approval process. “The partial renationalisation of competences on GM cultivation, proposed by the Commission but stalled in the legislative process, must not be a trick to allow the Commission to force through swifter and easier EU level authorisations. This would be at total odds with public will.”