EU court rules on mutagenesis technology

Luxembourg – Food produce obtained with cutting-edge genetic engineering technologies must comply with strict EU rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the bloc's top court ruled Wednesday.

Under EU rules, GMOs must undergo risk assessments and must be monitored, traced and labelled in supermarkets as such. GMOs are defined as organisms whose genetic material has been changed in a way that would not occur naturally.

But when the rules took effect in 2001, they included an exemption for varieties obtained by mutagenesis, a process in which specific gene sequences are removed but no foreign DNA is added.

Strict rules on genetic modification

A group of French small-scale farmers challenged that exemption, arguing that mutagenesis techniques have evolved and that organisms altered in that way – for example to create herbicide resistant varieties – could harm humans, animals and the environment.

The European Court of Justice upheld their argument, finding that new mutagenesis techniques – such as so-called molecular scissors – could carry risks similar to those of conventional genetic engineering.

Only mutagenesis techniques that "have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record" can be exempted from the European Union's GM rules, the Luxembourg-based court found, adding that member states can apply more stringent regulations.

The new techniques can deliver the same effects as inserting foreign genetic material into the organism and can produce new GM varieties at a rate "out of all proportion" to the traditional mutagenesis methods, the Luxembourg-based judges noted.

In view of these risks, excluding new mutagenesis techniques would compromise the aims of the EU's GM rules, which seek to protect human health and the environment, they added.

Controversial new technologies

The new techniques are highly contentious, with food producers arguing that they are required to keep up with global competition, while consumer groups worry about unlabelled GM food appearing on supermarket shelves.

Environmental groups welcomed the ruling. Friends of the Earth campaigner Mute Schimpf said that it "defeats the biotech industry's latest attempt to push unwanted genetically-modified products onto our fields and plates."

GM food is not widely available in Europe due to consumer opposition, although many firms are ready to start applying the new techniques, according to a German industry group.