The European Union’s General Court said on Wednesday that civil society organisations could submit legal cases challenging the way the European Commission authorises the sale of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The ruling annulled a previous decision from the Commission.
In 2015, the Commission rejected a call from German campaign group TestBioTech to review a decision allowing the import of genetically modified (GM) soybeans produced by American companies Pioneer and Monsanto.
The Commission had approved the import of the GM soybeans in 2015, after the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) issued a positive recommendation. According to the EFSA, GM soybeans are just as safe as their non-genetically modified counterparts.
TestBioTech had filed for a review of the Commission’s decision under the “Aarhus Regulation”, which grants civil society groups “access to justice” on environmental issues and allows them to engage with the EU in the decision-making process. However, the Commission said GMO decisions concerned health rather than the environment and therefore rejected the request.
In its ruling on Wednesday, the EU’s General Court said regulations on GMOs were “an integral part” of environmental law since GMOs are “of the natural environment” before they are turned into food. As a result, the court said EU regulation of GMOs in relation to human or animal health risks is also covered by the Aarhus Regulation.
“The EU Commission has allowed the import of genetically engineered soybeans despite concerns about the risks to human health,” said Christoph Then of TestBioTech. “The decision today is an important step towards strengthening the precautionary principle in the EU.”
Although TestBioTech welcomed the decision, it said some questions remained. The organisation urged the court “to clarify in more detail how it will deal with scientifically-based concerns and the role of the precautionary principle.”
TestBioTech also requested clarity “on the burden of proof incumbent on the EU Commission to provide evidence of safety.”
Scientists generally agree that GMOs are just as safe as non-genetically modified foods, both in terms of human health and the environment. Last month, a team of researchers in Italy found that GMOs increase crop yields and are beneficial to health. Based on an analysis of over 70 peer-reviewed studies, the research showed that genetically modified corn contained lower levels of toxins that non-genetically modified varieties.
However, many consumers and some governments still oppose GMOs. GM crop imports into the EU are often delayed because EU members cannot agree on whether or not to allow them, according to Reuters.
The cultivation of GMOs in Europe is also a contentious issue. 38 countries around the world have officially banned the cultivation of GMOs, 19 of which are in Europe. Currently the only GM crop grown in Europe is a type of insect-resistant maize, which is mostly grown in Spain.
Reuters reports that the EU permits the import of over 50 genetically modified crops. Even though EU regulations allow them to be used for human consumption, the crops are used only as animal feed.