Campaigners opposing new plant breeding techniques at protests in Brussels on 17 January called on the European Commission to “prevent GMOs entering the EU market through the back door”, as the debate intensifies over whether genetic engineering techniques should be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and should, therefore, fall under the strict GMO approval process.

Organic farmers (IFOAM EU) reacted strongly to the Advocate General’s opinion, urging the Court not to adopt this opinion in its final ruling.

The European Commission said in mid-January it expects “important” clarity on the scope of GMO legislation ahead of a Court ruling on new plant breeding techniques, following the release of an Advocate General’s first opinion.

European Court of Justice Advocate General Michal Bobek released on Thursday (18 January) his opinion following a request by France in 2016 to clarify whether a variety of herbicide-resistant rapeseed obtained through new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) should follow the GMO approval process, EURACTIV said.

The case concerns one type of NPBT (mutagenesis) and it is unclear whether the judgment will extend to other NPBTs and what impact a negative ruling would have on genetic engineering in general. Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are, in principle, exempted from the obligations in the GMO directive. The final judgment is due in May 2018.

Advocate-General Bobek noted that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are, in principle, exempted from the obligations in the GMO directive.

Although his opinion is not binding, European Court of Justice judges rarely go against the advice of their advocate-general. The final judgment is due in May 2018.

“There are no legal or scientific reasons to exempt from risk assessment, traceability and labelling, recently developed genetic engineering which has nothing to do with the mutagenesis of the 1960s, however they are called by their proponents,” IFOAM’s Eric Gall said.

“Exempting this new genetic engineering from a risk assessment would be a blatant denial of the precautionary principle and of the citizens’ right to know how their food is produced."

On the other hand, the seeds industry hailed the preliminary conclusion as an important step on the way to an ECJ ruling that provides clarity and legal certainty on basic questions regarding the regulatory status of plants resulting from mutagenesis breeding methods.

During its General Assembly in New Delhi, India, on 12 November 2017, IFOAM – Organics International adopted a global position which reaffirms that GMOs created through new genetic engineering techniques have no place in organic food and farming systems.

Markus Arbenz, director of IFOAM – Organics International said earlier that: “The unified position of the organic sector, based on science and on the Principles of the Organic Agriculture (Care, Ecology, Health and Fairness), is clear: new genetic engineering techniques are GMOs and must therefore not be used in organic production.

"The current absence of regulation for these new technologies in many parts of the world means that genetically modified plants and animals can be released in the environment with no risk assessment and no information for breeders, farmers and consumers. The organic movement calls on regulators to ensure transparency and traceability, and to safeguard producers’ and consumers’ freedom not to use untested genetic engineering techniques.”