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The Big Debate: Was the ECJ ruling a missed opportunity for the EU’s bio-technology sector?

The Big Debate: Was the ECJ ruling a missed opportunity for the EUs bio-technology sector?

“… this directive does not seem to have adapted to the new challenges we are facing in 2018.”

It may be coming towards the end of the year, but today we are launching something new – The Big Debate. This regular feature aims to discuss the big topics of the day affecting the bio-economy and invites key stakeholders to offer their opinions. Today’s first question is on the the controversial topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with contributions from Bayer, the FNSEA, GM Freeze and Friends of the Earth.

On 25 July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that organisms obtained by gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR, are in principle subject to the same regulations as GMOs. This would mean that they would have to undergo the same safety checks for their impacts on the environment and human health as existing GMOs. At the time, the ruling was seen as a blow for the bio-based industry. This is because genome editing is currently being applied in a broad range of projects, including the production of bio-based chemicals to help provide renewable substitutes for fossil fuels. Other uses include the development of crops to improve yields and reduce food waste.

Yet to add to the confusion, the European Commissions Scientific Advice Mechanism Group recently suggested to revise the blocs GMO directive in order to harness gene editing.

Here, Bio-Based World News asks industry experts if the ECJ ruling was a missed opportunity for the EUs industrial bio-technology sector?


V.K. Kishore, head of breeding and testing at Germany-based life sciences company Bayer, said: I see the ECJ ruling in Case C-528/16 as a missed opportunity for agricultural innovation in the EU. This decision will have deep repercussions for food choices and societal demand that will ultimately cost consumers. This is unnecessary because the latest plant breeding methods build on a strong history of innovation by plant breeders, and the resulting efforts are the foundation of a secure, safe, nutritious and diverse food supply.

While the methods have become more precise and efficient, the final products are usually indistinguishable from those produced via traditional breeding methods. Most scientific publications on the latest methods in plant breeding today come from China, the US and Japan, with Europe lagging far behind.

BBWN - YesI expect this gap to further increase because of this ruling. With the high regulatory barriers that will now apply to some mutagenesis-derived crops, it is likely that much of the potential of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe with significant negative economic, environmental and societal consequences. I hope for a continue dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to enable plant breeding innovation throughout Europe, in a responsible and sustainable manner.

An industry expert on GMOs from Frances agricultural union FNSEA said: The ECJ ruling is bad news. It adds confusion to the (GMO) directive 2001/18, and will probably lock out the use of all new breeding technologies. Farmers need further clarity on this in order to tackle the new challenges in the agricultural sector.

This judgement is now showing that European law on bio-technologies needs to be reconsidered, because nearly 20 years after its enactment, this directive does not seem to have adapted to the new challenges we are facing in 2018. Genetic tools are more powerful and specific.

The farming industry should be able to use bio-technologies as other sectors, i.e. medicine, in order to find answers to new challenges. For instance, the need to improve food production and reduce its impact on the environment, and the production of biofuels to mitigate climate change.

Changing the law doesnt mean we should delete all control. As the European Commissions Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) proposes, we think we should evaluable products instead of technics, and maintain our research and development capacity in Europe. If not, Europe could be dependent on countries like China or USA who invest more and more in bio-technologies and will master most of the research and development tools.


BBWN - NoLiz ONeill, director at UK-based campaign group GM Freeze, said: Its important to remember that the European Court of Justice didnt ban anything with this decision. Rather, it issued a clear and sensible judgement that emerging technologies with the potential to permanently alter the ecosystem should be properly regulated. The genome is far more complex than we used to believe more like a biological super-computer than the DNA models we studied at school. All genetic engineering techniques can give rise to unplanned DNA alterations, unintended consequences of planned alterations, and unpredictable real-world impacts. We are delighted that this ruling will ensure their use in our fields and our food will be subject to detailed safety checks, monitoring and traceability.

Mute Schimpf, a campaigner for environmental group Friends of the Earth, said: We welcome this landmark ruling which defeats the biotech industrys latest attempt to push unwanted genetically-modified products onto our fields and plates.

If you would like to propose a topic for January’s Big Debate, or offer yourself as a future contributor, please email

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