European Court of Justice ruling threatens legality of Novartis Bt maize

A ruling by the European Court of Justice has left the way open for France, which was the first member state to approve Novartis Bt maize and propose it for EU-wide approval, to reverse its decision and, potentially, trigger reconsideration of its European status.

Novartis Bt maize is the one of the most contentious GMO seed varieties already approved for commercial growing in the EU. The seed was given market approval by France and the country proposed it for EU-wide market approval, which was achieved. Since then, three countries – Austria, Luxembourg and Germany – have instituted national bans on the seed following concerns regarding its impact on wildlife (see related story).

France itself has had a temporary, emergency ban on the variety since 1998 when Greenpeace France accused the French Government of approving the seed without taking adequate consideration of environmental and human health impacts.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on 21 March was issued in response to France’s questions about what it should do if it finds that its original approval process for Novartis Bt maize was ‘irregular’. The ECJ has stated that:

    Where the national court finds that, owing to irregularities in the conduct of the examination of the notification by the competent national authority provided … it was not proper for the authority to forward the dossier with a favourable opinion to the Commission … that court must refer the matter to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling if it considers that those irregularities are such as to affect the validity of the Commission’s favourable decision, if necessary ordering the suspension of application of the measures for implementing that decision until the Court of Justice has ruled on the question of validity

Greenpeace is hopeful that the ECJ ruling will lead the French Conseil d’Etat to go one step further and ask the ECJ to re-assess whether France’s approval of Novartis Bt maize is irregular enough to warrant a full re-assessment of the variety’s commercial availability in Europe.

Also of importance, according to Greenpeace International GE campaigner Isabelle Meister, is the ECJ’s ruling on new information about GM varieties that have already been approved. “If the country that originally proposed a variety for EU-wide approval receives or finds new information about the [environmental or human health] impacts of it, that country can ask for the EU approval to be reconsidered,” Meister told edie. “It has to be new information that was not considered with the original approval.”

Finally, the ECJ reconfirmed the right of EU member states to institute national bans on GM varieties that are officially approved for use in the EU. Article 16 of the Directive for the release of GMOs into the environment states that:

    Where a member state has justifiable reasons to consider that a product which has been properly notified and has received written consent under this Directive constitutes a risk to human health or the environment, it may provisionally restrict or prohibit the use and/or sale of that product on its territory

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