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Gene-Edited Products Now Classified as GMOs in European Union

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The European Court of Justice ruled Wednesday that organisms obtained by mutagenesis, or gene editing, are considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which mean they fall under the same strict EU rules that govern GMOs.

The decision is a victory for organic farming associations and environmentalists wary of "GMO 2.0" techniques such as CRISPR gene editing that alter an organism's DNA.


"These new 'GMO 2.0' genetic engineering techniques must be fully tested before they are let out in the countryside and into our food," Mute Schimpf, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said in a press release. "We welcome this landmark ruling which defeats the biotech industry's latest attempt to push unwanted genetically-modified products onto our fields and plates."

The biotech industry and other gene editing proponents believe the novel technique can revolutionize food production, medicine and other areas. Compared to older GMO technology, which typically involves inserting genetic material from one species to another, gene editing uses "molecular scissors" to edit DNA of live organisms. For instance, scientists have created a mushroom that resists browning by using the genome-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9.

The German chemical industry association VCL, which represents companies such as Bayer, BASF and Merck KGaA, was disappointed by the court's ruling, calling it "backward looking and hostile to progress," Reuters reported.

"It is damaging to the ability of the EU's biotech hub to innovate and disconnects it from developments in the rest of the world," VCL continued.

The case was brought to the European Court of Justice by French farmer unions that argued organisms obtained by mutagenesis should not be exempt from GMO rules under French law.

Today's decision means that GMO 2.0 foods and crops are subject to existing EU laws for GMOs, including safety assessments, clear labelling and traceability.

However, the court ruled that exemptions could be made for mutagenesis techniques that have been conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record.

In light of the decision, Schimpf of Friends of the Earth urged the EU and national lawmakers to "ensure that all new genetically modified products are fully tested, and they must also support the small-scale, nature-friendly agriculture we urgently need."

Bart Staes, the MEP of the Greens/EFA group, also applauded the decision.

"Just because the industry has come up with new ways to modify organisms does not mean that these techniques should be exempt from existing EU standards on GMOs," he said in a press release. "Recent scientific studies show that these new techniques might not be as accurate as the industry claims them to be, that's why it's essential that they come under the same labelling requirements and impact assessments as existing GMOs. These new patented organisms may have unintended effects, as well [as] the potential to increase our dependence on the agri-chemical industry, and therefore must be stringently monitored by the European Food Safety Authority for any risks to human, animal and environmental health."

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Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.

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University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.