The European Court of Justice ruled that European Union member governments cannot ban cultivation of genetically engineered crops in the absence of scientific evidence of risk to human health. The ruling is considered a victory in the defense of policies backed by scientific findings rather than emotion.
The case involved farmer Giorgio Fidenato, who cultivated genetically modified (GM) corn on his farm in Italy and was prosecuted by the government, claiming that the crops could endanger human health. He faced fines from the government, and anti-GM activists destroyed his crops.
In 2013, Italy asked the European Commission to adopt emergency measures prohibiting the planting of GM seeds on the basis of Italian scientific studies, but the commission disputed those studies due to the fact that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said there was “no new science-based evidence” that the seeds posed a health risk.
The government of Italy pursued the cultivation ban of GM corn and prosecuted Fidenato and other farmers who planted the varieties.
Ron Moore, an Illinois soybean farmer and president of the American Soybean Assn., said from a scientific standpoint, the ruling is a comforting one.
“The court’s decision reverses the ‘precautionary principle,’ which has been the EU’s long-standing default argument that, in the absence of proof that a product is absolutely safe, unverified concerns about its safety are sufficient to ban either importation or cultivation,” he said.
Moore explained that, for the last 20 years, this unscientific approach unfortunately has given rise to an equally unscientific patchwork of restrictions or prohibitions on EU imports and cultivation of biotech crops by member states, even after those products have been approved by EFSA, not to mention countless other food safety and global health agencies.
“We are happy to see this ruling and hope it will lead to similar science-based stances on genetic engineering in Europe in the years to come,” Moore added.
Beat Späth, director of agricultural biotech at Brussels, Belgium-based EuropaBio, said he does not expect a direct impact from this court case on GM crops in the EU, unfortunately. “It has no likely impact on Italy’s current cultivation opt-out or on other current opt-out. This is because the EU legislators changed the law in 2015 to allow countries to ban EU-authorized GM seeds using grounds not related to safety,” Späth explained. “The legislation has moved even further away from science.”
He added, “It is worth remembering that only one, single GM crop is authorized in the EU but banned in more than half of the member states and that our member companies have withdrawn most cultivation applications in the last few years due to the improper implementation of the GM authorization system for cultivation.”