On 25 July, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) published its ruling in the matter of an action brought by French agricultural organisations and NGOs: Gene-editing and other new breeding techniques which generate mutations by directly altering an organism’s genome are subject to the obligations laid down by GMO legislation. Unlike the older techniques employed to generate mutations, i.e. ionising radiation or chemical treatment, these new techniques must be considered genetic engineering techniques. This means that the products resulting from these new breeding methods must be labelled as GMO. Similarly, the safety assessment as part of the approval process is as stringent as that which is applied to earlier genetic engineering techniques which generate cultivars that cannot be obtained by natural means.
Beneficial for the organic sector – Precautionary principle strengthened
This ruling is good news for the organic farming sector and for critical consumers. Complete transparency from seed to food is ensured, thus safeguarding freedom of choice. The ECJ, in its ruling, placed major emphasis on the precautionary principle. This is very encouraging, particularly in light of the fact that attempts towards the implementation of the precautionary principle with regard to other agricultural technologies unfortunately remain in their infancy, for example when it comes to pesticide applications, the use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers, or the use of antibiotics, all of which are areas where the damage caused is more than evident.
In the run-up to the ECJ ruling, the science sector looked at the new breeding techniques as an opportunity to create crop varieties requiring fewer pesticide applications and less fertiliser. In contrast, the ECJ primarily focused on potential risks to the environment and human health, given that a sufficient track record has yet to be established.
The ECJ ruling has created a need for action with regard to the traceability of the newly bred cultivars. As outside of Europe these are in most instances cultivated undeclared, the onus to ensure freedom from genetic modification is now on the authorities and the food trade. FiBL will contribute its expertise in this regard.
Major potential of organic plant breeding
From very modest beginnings, organic plant breeders over the past 20 years have bred plant cultivars which produce good yields without pesticides and relying only on organic fertilisers. We must now expand on this success story because it holds great potential, not only for the organic farming sector but also for conventional and integrated production. The organic plant breeders are highly committed to producing new organic cultivars and in their endeavours are benefiting from the scientific support provided by FiBL’s crop scientists.
Both practical breeding of improved organic cultivars and scientific backstopping must now be greatly expanded because we need a productive and environmentally sound farming sector.
- Dr Monika Messmer, Head of plant breeding FiBL Switzerland
- Prof. Dr Urs Niggli, Director FiBL Switzerland