By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy
Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that EU member states cannot ban cultivation of genetically engineered crops without scientific evidence of risk to human health. The ruling was on a case that dates back to 2013, when an Italian farmer wanted to plant biotech corn. Italy has long banned the planting of genetically engineered crops. The farmer in question, Giorgio Fidenato, planted the corn on his land in defiance of Italy’s ban. Four years later, it is a win for science-based regulation that the European Court of Justice sided with Fidenato and ruled that Italy does not have the right to ban GM crops without a scientific reason.
It is not all good news for science in Europe though. The EU has previously had pesticide legislation that sets risk-based tolerances and maximum residue levels (MRLs). However, the EU is now in the process of introducing hazard-based restrictions on import tolerances. These restrictions are not only contrary to the EU’s MRL legislation but also contrary to the World Trade Organization (WTO) Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, which requires that decisions be based on risk assessments. A hazard-based approach risks significantly impacting trade and affecting product availability in the EU. This would also jeopardize trade litigation that could result in retaliation against billions of dollars of its exports.
For a highly traded commodity like wheat, it is imperative that regulatory systems worldwide be transparent and science-based. Otherwise, exporters jeopardize having shipments held up — or prevented altogether — and importers cannot rely on deliveries arriving in a timely manner. When technology does not have a negative impact on health or the environment, there is no reason for countries to needlessly restrict its use, or worse, vilify its existence. It is heartening that the EU has taken a step in the right direction on biotechnology, but they are moving backward on SPS issues that could inhibit trade and hurt domestic businesses. Unscientific regulations make it hard for a globalized market to function well.