17th May 2022

Regions not allowed to ban GMOs, court rules

The European Commission won a legal battle on GMOs on Wednesday (5 October), as the Austrian region of Upper Austria was prohibited by the EU Court to ban the growing of genetically modified crops.

In a draft law in 2003, the Austrian region completely banned the cultivation of seeds and plants containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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The measure was taken on a precautionary basis, with the argument that genetically modified crops could potentially damage ecosystems.

The commission, after consulting the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), subsequently declared Upper Austria's move illegal under EU internal market rules - prompting a court action by the Austrians.

A commission spokeswoman told the EUobserver that the commission is "pleased" with the ruling.

"Internal market rules have been upheld", she said.

"There is no justification for laws in member states completely banning GMOs".

EU policy on GMOs is based on a 2001 EC law which provides for a case-by-case authorisation regime for the release of GMO products on the bloc's common market, on the basis of a safety check by both national authorities and the EFSA.

But once a GMO product is authorised across the EU, member states can still apply for a national or regional ban of a product on the basis of new scientific evidence, the EC treaty says.

Biotechnology industry

However, the Court of First Instance - the EU's second highest court - argued on Wednesday that the general considerations of precaution, as put forward by the Austrian region, constituted no proper scientific evidence "by their general nature".

The court stated in its ruling: "When requested at the hearing to comment on the scale of the problem posed by GMOs in the Land Oberösterreich, the applicants were not able to state whether the presence of such organisms had even been recorded".

The commission spokeswoman said the EU has the "safest legislation in the world", but environmental groups question this.

Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental NGO, says the EFSA - which has a key role in authorising GMOs - is biased towards the interests of the biotechnology industry.

"Since its conception the EFSA has rejected virtually every concern raised by Member States’ about the safety of GM foods and crops", the NGO stated in a press release after Wednesday's court ruling.

Friends of the Earth Europe highlighted that "Upper Austria is just one of 164 Regions and 4500 local authorities in the EU to have declared themselves GMO-free".

But Upper Austria was the first region to actually adopt a general ban of GMOs - which was prohibited, first by the commission and then by the court.

The self-declared GMO-free regions may in the future still move to ban individual GMO products, but according to the commission spokeswoman it is a "likely scenario" that it will then be taken to court by companies.

"This has to be tested in practice", the spokeswoman said.

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