Europe’s GM legislation is ‘outdated’, US says after Court ruling on gene editing

US President Donald J. Trump speaks as US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue looks on during a roundtable with farmers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, on 25 April 2017. [EPA/Olivier Douliery / POOL]

US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has called a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice on new plant-breeding techniques (NPBTs) a ‘setback’ and said Washington is ready to help EU politicians make decisions based on scientific evidence.

“Government policies should encourage scientific innovation without creating unnecessary barriers or unjustifiably stigmatizing new technologies. Unfortunately, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling is a setback in this regard,” Perdue said in a statement.

The Republican politician noted that the Court decision narrowly considers newer genome editing methods to be within the scope of the EU’s “regressive and outdated” regulations governing genetically modified organisms.

“We encourage the European Union to seek input from the scientific and agricultural communities, as well as its trading partners, in determining the appropriate implementation of the ruling,” he emphasised.

The ECJ ruled on 25 July that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive

The Court’s decision was hailed as a victory by NGOs, while the biotech industry described it as a severe blow to innovation in EU agriculture with long-term economic and environmental implications.

Industry shocked by EU Court decision to put gene editing technique under GM law

The European Court of Justice ruled on 25 July that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, in a surprising move that went contrary to the Advocate-General’s non-binding opinion.

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

Before the ruling, a European Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that “broader reflection” is needed when it comes to innovation in the EU seeds sector.

Following the Court decision, the executive said it would now carefully assess it without providing further information.

Neal Gutterson, Chief Technology Officer at Corteva Agriscience, told EURACTIV that while some may see this as a win for consumers, the reality is just the opposite.

“Subjecting all new breeding advances to regulatory review will stifle innovation and deprive European farmers and consumers of a range of important benefits. These include healthier vegetables, disease- and drought-resistant crops and locally produced replacements for palm oil, just to name a few,” he said.

Gutterson added that the Court decision was also contrary to the views taken by scientists as well as regulatory bodies outside of Europe.

“A growing number of countries, including global agricultural production leaders such as the United States, Argentina and Brazil, have examined the science and concluded that plant varieties developed through the latest breeding methods should not be subject to different or additional regulatory oversight if they could also be obtained through earlier breeding methods or result from processes occurring in nature.”

In March, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a statement saying that Washington was not willing to regulate NPBTs.

“The US does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests,” USDA said.

“With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” it added.

“The global regulatory treatment of genome-edited agricultural products has strategic innovation and trade implications for U.S. agriculture. For this reason, USDA has clear science- and risk-based policies that enable needed innovation while continuing to ensure these products are safe. In light of the ECJ ruling, USDA will re-double its efforts to work with partners globally towards science- and risk-based regulatory approaches.”

Background

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

The agri-food industry says the 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.

To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling “hidden” GMOs to European farmers, who will simultaneously lose their right to use their own seeds. Their basic argument is that all these techniques should fall under the strict GMO approval process.

In 2016, France asked the European Court of Justice to clarify whether a variety of herbicide-resistant rapeseed obtained through NPBTs should follow the GMO approval process.

The European Commission has told EURACTIV.com that the executive’s legal interpretation is expected to facilitate harmonisation of EU member states’ approaches to new breeding techniques. “However, it is the sole prerogative of the European Court of Justice to provide a final and binding opinion on the interpretation of EU law.”

EU farmers: US overtakes Europe in plant breeding innovation

European farmers warned EU policymakers on 10 April to take immediate action and encourage innovative new plant breeding techniques following the US decision not to regulate them.

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