Commission expects clarity on GM scope from court ruling on plant breeding techniques

The Advocate General noted that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are, in principle, exempted from the obligations in GM directive. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission expects “important” clarity on the scope of GMO legislation ahead of a Court ruling on new plant breeding techniques, an EU spokesperson told EURACTIV.com following the release of an Advocate General’s first opinion.

European Court of Justice Advocate General Michal Bobek released on Thursday (18 January) his opinion following a request by France in 2016 to clarify whether a variety of herbicide-resistant rapeseed obtained through new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) should follow the GMO approval process.

The case concerns one type of NPBT (mutagenesis) and it is unclear whether the judgment will extend to other NPBTs and what impact a negative ruling would have on genetic engineering in general.

Bobek noted that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are, in principle, exempted from the obligations in the GMO directive.

Although his opinion is not binding, European Court of Justice judges rarely go against the advice of their advocate-general. The final judgment is due in May 2018.

An EU spokesperson told EURACTIV that the executive took note of the opinion from the ECJ Advocate General.

“The expected ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the issue should bring important clarification of the scope of the GMO legislation,” the spokesperson said.

The EU official reiterated the Commission’s position that a broad EU reflection on new breeding techniques and innovation in the seeds sector (and beyond) is needed.

The term NPBTs describes a number of scientific methods for the genetic engineering of plants to enhance traits like drought tolerance and pest resistance.

Discussion on new breeding techniques heats up ahead of court opinion

Campaigners opposing new plant breeding techniques have organised protests in Brussels on Wednesday (17 January) calling on the European Commission to “prevent GMOs entering the EU market through the back door”.

The debate revolves around whether these techniques should be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and should, therefore, fall under the strict GMO approval process [see background].

Organic farmers (IFOAM EU) reacted strongly to the Advocate General’s opinion, urging the Court not to adopt this opinion in its final ruling.

“There are no legal or scientific reasons to exempt from risk assessment, traceability and labelling, recently developed genetic engineering which has nothing to do with the mutagenesis of the 1960s, however they are called by their proponents,” IFOAM’s Eric Gall said.

“Exempting this new genetic engineering from a risk assessment would be a blatant denial of the precautionary principle and of the citizens’ right to know how their food is produced,” he added.

On the other hand, the seeds industry hailed the preliminary conclusion as an important step on the way to an ECJ ruling that provides clarity and legal certainty on basic questions regarding the regulatory status of plants resulting from mutagenesis breeding methods.

“The seed sector will carefully analyse this opinion and assess the Advocate General’s view on the legal interpretations put forward by the EU institutions as well as number of member states that intervened in the case. Given the complexity of the matter, a more detailed statement on the opinion and arguments put forward therein will still take some time,” the European Seeds Association (ESA) Secretary General Garlich von Essen told EURACTIV.

Von Essen added that the first interpretation suggests that the Advocate General seems to confirm the legal interpretations of the European institutions, and here specifically of the Commission and most member states, that the exemption of mutagenesis techniques from GMO legislation, as provided by current EU law, is one of principal and does not depend on the specific mutagenesis technique used.

Commission: EU needs ‘broad reflection’ on new breeding techniques and beyond

A “broad EU reflection” on new breeding techniques and innovation in the seeds sector and beyond is needed, European Commission sources told EURACTIV.com in the light of a new scientific report on genetic engineering techniques in agriculture.

The European Parliament’s Greens/EFA group has warned that the risks of authorising NPBTs outside the GMO framework are too great: once these new organisms are out of the laboratories, they will be untraceable.

This, the group says, would lead to the unchecked cultivation of modified organisms across the EU and make “any future EU regulation virtually impossible”, if unintended, harmful effects come to light.

On the contrary, centre-left S&D group MEP Paolo De Castro believes the focus of agricultural innovation should be on enabling farmers to produce more with less and to make farming more sustainable. De Castro also stressed that the legal framework should be separate to the EU’s current laws on genetically modified organisms.

“The EU should develop a broad legal framework for NPBTs beyond allowing seed developers to increase herbicide tolerance or resistance to certain pests,” the Italian MEP recently told EURACTIV.

“The food resulting from these new techniques is completely different from the Frankestein food our consumers are scared of.”

De Castro MEP: New plant breeding techniques are nothing like ‘Frankenstein’ GMOs

The vice-chair of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee has argued that Europe should embrace innovative biotechnologies to boost food production while cutting the environmental impact of farming, but environmentalists remain sceptical.

Background

The European Commission revived the debate on genetic engineering on 28 September 2017, during a meeting on modern biotechnologies in agriculture focusing on New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs). But its stance is still unclear.

The term NPBTs describes a number of scientific methods that genetically engineer plants to enhance traits like drought tolerance and pest resistance.

The debate revolves on whether these techniques should be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and should therefore fall under the strict GMO approval process.

The EU defines GMOs as “organisms, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”.

Supporters of NPBTs argue that plants obtained through these techniques could also be the product of conventional cross-breeding techniques that mimic natural processes and hence cannot be considered GMOs.

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