Today, the European Court of Justice has opened the door to a massive flood of unlabelled and unassessed GMOs in farmers’ fields and on European citizens’ plates, whilst at the same time allowing a handful of multinational organisations to use patents to appropriate and control cultivated biodiversity.
The CJEU capitulated in favour of seed multinationals in the judgment delivered this morning, which considers that GMOs derived from in vitro mutagenesis (mutagenic techniques of in vitro multiplication of isolated plant or animal cells) must be exempted from the application of the current GMO regulation.
However, ECVC underlines that these techniques are all patentable and are therefore neither natural nor traditional.¹ They were developed shortly before 2001 at the same time as transgenesis (even though most products arrived on the market well after 2001), and generate the same health and environmental risks that justify the current regulatory obligations of risk assessment, labelling and traceability.
Seeds resulting from these "in vitro mutagenesis" techniques will now only be regulated by the EU seeds catalogue of varieties. These techniques leave identifiable traces in the organisms they used on. But unlike the GMO regulation, the catalogue does not require any breeding techniques to be indicated, nor is it mandatory to disclose the processes that allow the identification of the genetic and epigenetic "signatures" that the techniques leave. It will thus become impossible for farmers and consumers to distinguish these GMOs from any other non-GMO conventionally bred plant. Seed companies will be able to market GMOs by claiming to have used these in vitro mutagenesis techniques and directly registering their new varieties in the catalogue, even for GMOs that in reality result from one of the new genetic modification techniques still regulated today.
However, unlike traditional breeding techniques, in vitro techniques are patentable. Without proper application of GMO regulations and with no obligation to disclose the process to distinguish their GMOs from any other plant, the scope of these patents will extend to all plants of the same species expressing the patented trait, such as resistance to a disease. As is already the case in North America, this means the five multinational companies that already hold patents on the majority of the essential traits of many agricultural plants will be able to seize control of the majority of crops and food in Europe as well.
The ruling comes after a long backstory of misinformation, misinterpretations and legal battles, during which the seed and biotech industry has lobbied the EU institutions to deregulate GMOs.
According to the initial analysis, the ruling does not sufficiently clarify all the questions raised by farmers' organisations about the status of new genomic techniques in European law. It is also contradictory in that only traditional techniques can be exempted from GMO regulation, but they are not patentable. If in vitro mutagenesis techniques are patentable, it is because they are not traditional and therefore produce regulated GMOs. However, farmers’ organisations, including ECVC member organisation La Conféderation paysanne and ECVC itself, will continue to fight for the rights of all European citizens and farmers to know what they eat and sow, to guarantee GMO-free seeds and food and to maintain farmers' seed autonomy.
1 -An isolated plant or animal somatic cell does not multiply to give new cells, it dies.