EU study to clarify gene editing court ruling further muddies waters

The study has been submitted as a number of MEPs have expressed a desire to find ways to work around the ruling. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

After the controversial European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in 2018 that organisms obtained by new plant breeding techniques (NBTs) should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, the Council of the EU has requested a study from the Commission to clarify the situation.

But what this means in practice remains unclear, stakeholders have told EURACTIV.

Speaking at a recent event on NBTs, Jari Leppä, Finnish agriculture minister and current president of the EU agri-fish council, confirmed the Council had requested a study on the “options to update the existing legislation”.

He added that “if necessary, the Commission must be prepared to submit a proposal to amend the GMO directive”. But the exact purpose and aim of the request are not immediately clear.

The request for the study, which should be submitted to the Council by the end of April 2021, states that while the ruling brought “legal clarity” as to the status of new mutagenesis techniques, it also raised “practical questions which have consequences for the national competent authorities, the Union’s industry, in particular in the plant breeding sector, research and beyond”.

It specifies that these questions mainly concern the issue of how to “ensure compliance when products obtained by means of NBTs cannot be distinguished, using current methods, from products resulting from natural mutation”.

Although the request does not specifically mention “options to update the existing legislation”, it does say the Commission should “submit a proposal, if appropriate in view of the outcomes of the study”.

The ECJ ruling from July 2018 was hailed as a victory for environmental campaigners, while the biotech industry argued it was harmful for innovation in agriculture.

EU food policy director at Greenpeace, Franziska Achterberg, told EURACTIV she does not believe this study is part of an attempt to change the legislation, saying instead that the request is “vague enough for the Commission to do anything with it”.

Achterberg added that, while it is possible to interpret this as a request to amend the GMO legislation, it’s “also clear that the Commission has full discretion here and can also inform the Council on other measures required as a follow-up to the study”.

MEPs slam gene-editing court ruling as damaging for SMEs

It is much easier for larger companies to implement new GM legislation, but it’s the smaller ones that are most affected by the recent gene-editing ruling, the chair of the agriculture committee (AGRI) MEP, Norbert Lins, told at the sidelines of a recent plant breeding conference.

The study has been requested as a number of MEPs have expressed a desire to find ways to work around the ruling.

MEP Paolo De Castro, socialists’ group coordinator at the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee (AGRI), told EURACTIV that the recent ECJ ruling on gene editing represents “a legal drawback that it is crucial to solve”.

He added that after the ECJ ruling, “prompt and efficient interventions by the legislators are needed in order to take into accounts the latest innovations and technologies and differentiate them from traditional GMOs” and that “this point will be one of our main priorities for the new European Parliament term”.

The chair of AGRI committee, MEP Norbert Lins, told EURACTIV on the sidelines of the recent conference that he was more interested in working to find a way around the court ruling than in working out ways to uphold it.

Petra Jorasch, manager of plant breeding innovation advocacy at Euroseeds, has recently released a statement about how the GMO directive is no longer “fit for purpose”. 

In the statement, she said that an update of the GMO Directive is the “only legally possible approach to overcome the challenges that the ECJ ruling put on plants resulting from mutagenesis breeding”.

She added that this update should be “as targeted as possible on the base of excluding those plants from the GMO regulations”.

Commission in search of ‘robust response’ to gene editing challenge

The EU executive has already prepared the ground for a new initiative on gene editing to overhaul the current GMO legislation, EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan has said.

Joanna Dupont-Inglis, secretary-general for the European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio), told EURACTIV they “strongly welcome the Council Decision requesting the Commission to submit a study on the status of novel genomic techniques”, and that they “hope it will lead to a Commission proposal”.

Dupont-Inglis added that she hopes that, in addition to this study, the Council initiative will now lead to a “timely legislative proposal” which should “be proportionate about non-transgenic crops developed using genome editing”, stating that these should not be classified or regulated as GMOs.

Martin Sommer, a policy coordinator on GMOs, patent and seeds at EU organics association IFOAM, is one of the upholders of the ECJ ruling.

He said that from a legal perspective, the status of new genetic engineering techniques is “crystal clear” since the 2018 ECJ ruling and that the current European legal framework on GMOs is fit to regulate the new techniques.

Sommer said that what is needed now is “action from the Commission to take a coordinating role in the implementation of the law and to push forward the development of adequate detection methods and strategies, based on a clear EU mandate and funding, which is currently missing”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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