ECJ ruling on gene editing: ‘A missed opportunity for agricultural innovation in the EU’

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/fizkes
© GettyImages/fizkes
Industry is railing against the ruling published yesterday by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that classifies plants from mutagenesis techniques as GMOs.

The European Seed Association (ESA) described it as a watershed moment for the EU’s agri-food chain.

“It is now likely that much of the potential of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe - with significant negative economic and environmental consequences. That strikes a serious blow to European agriculture and plant science,”​ said Garlich von Essen, ESA Secretary General.

Latest breeding innovations such as CRISPR CAS are widely seen as critical tools to help breeders and farmers to do more with less inputs, as requested by the post-2020 CAP, continued that Brussels based body, which represents the interests of those active in research, breeding, production and marketing of seeds of agricultural, horticultural and ornamental plant species. 

A more detailed analysis of the ruling​ still needs to be done; but the initial view of the seed sector is a bleak one, continued the ESA.

“While other parts of the world go ahead with these innovations without unnecessary overregulation, Europe’s breeders and farmers will once again loose out, without a chance to explore the huge potential and benefits of these plant breeding innovations in practice.”

Farming lobby fears EU isolation risk

The ECJ decision risks that European agriculture will remain isolated from the benefits of innovative developments vis-à-vis the rest of the world, said Pekka Pesonen, secretary general, Copa and Cogeca.

European farmers are currently facing many challenges like extreme weather conditions, price volatility, and bans on neonicotinoides, and they, therefore, they need the availability of improved breeds, added the EU farmer representative group.

It called on governments of the Member States to quickly take a decision on the legal status of certain mutagenesis techniques.

“EU legislation should be fit for purpose, encouraging innovation in plant breeding and helping farmers to continue to provide safe and traceable food whilst protecting resources," ​said Pesonen.

Lack of legal clarity 

John Brennan, secretary general of the European biotech industry group, EuropaBio, warned that in the absence of improved legal clarity in this area, Europe could miss out on significant benefits of certain applications of genome editing. 

“In addition to providing consumer and environmental benefits, such as enhanced nutrition, improved health or a more circular economy, innovations made possible by genome editing hold enormous promise to keep Europe at the forefront of socio-economic development, continuing to generate jobs and growth in the EU,” ​he said. “Unfortunately, this court ruling, which is inconsistent with the Advocate General’s Opinionpublished in January, does not provide the necessary regulatory clarity needed by EU researchers, academics and innovators.”

Brennan added that public confidence and science-based decision-making are both important for ensuring that genome editing can deliver needed solutions.

"Looking forward, EuropaBio believes that the next step, for the EU and its Member States, is to engage citizens in an inclusive and fact-based dialogue on what genome editing is, and what it will or will not be used for. 

“It will be important to build knowledge, develop understanding and deliver risk-proportionate policy approaches, allowing innovation, which is already taking place in other parts of the world, to also benefit the EU’s society, economy and the environment.”

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