On July 25, the European Court of Justice issued its long-awaited ruling on new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) that involve a process known as mutagenesis. The ECJ’s decision means that this new technique will now be subject to the same limitations and oversight as standard GMOs. The ruling has proved controversial, splitting environmental and agricultural groups across the EU.
New plant breeding techniques is a catch-all term that refers to ongoing developments in the genetic engineering of plants. This case specifically focused on mutagenesis, whereby the DNA of a plant breed is altered. This is done in order to make the plant more resistant to environment factors and pests or to increase its nutritional content. The process differs from transgenesis, which is used to produce GMOs, as it doesn’t involve the use of foreign or artificial DNA.
The ECJ’s ruling came as something of a surprise. The case was originally initiated by the French government, which asked the ECJ to determine the legality of this new form of plant breeding. As a result, the Advocate-General issued an opinion on the matter in January in which he recommended mutagenesis techniques be excluded from the 2001 GMO directive as long as they don’t include artificial DNA or genetic material from other species. While the Advocate-General’s opinion is not binding, it is unusual for the ECJ to diverge from his findings.
In its ruling, the ECJ determined that “Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs within the meaning of the GMO Directive, in so far as the techniques and methods of mutagenesis alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally”. It explained that the risks associated with this new breeding technique could be similar to those linked with GMOs.
However, the ECJ excluded conventional mutagenesis techniques that have a long safety record. For example, Durum Wheat, colloquially referred to as pasta wheat or macaroni wheat, has been widely used in Italy since the 1950s. As such, the use and sale of this popular strain won’t be subject to the same stringent requirements of other plant breeds.
Several environmental groups are happy with the ruling, given that they have roundly criticised NPBTs such as mutagenesis as simply a GMO by another name. There have been concerns that these new genetic materials could be released into the environment and harm organic farmers. Furthermore, many farmers believe these patented breeding techniques could increase their dependence on multinational seed corporations.
However, many agricultural groups have criticised the decision. In a tweet following the ECJ’s ruling, Copa-Cogeca, the biggest farmers’ association in the EU, stated that “farmers are facing many challenges like extreme weather conditions, price volatility etc, therefore they need the availability of improved breeds”. The hope was that mutagenesis would allow farmers to combat pesticide resistance, increase yields, and improve crops’ nutritional content.
Scientific organisations have also spoken out against the ruling. For instance, the European Academies Science Advisory Council described it as a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU”. From their perspective, this sort of research and development is key for global food and nutritional security. They noted that developing countries in particular stood to benefit from the development of new seeds.
Importantly, this ruling could also have consequences for ongoing or future trade negotiations. Agriculture is frequently a sticking point in international trade and the EU’s stance on GMOs has proved contentious with the US. Other countries such as Canada and Brazil are also far more accommodating when it comes to modified food organisms. As such, there is the possibility that this restrictive stance could complicate trade relations with Canada and Mercosur.