GMO Corn Issue Referred to European Court of Justice

21 December 1998

The French Council of State December 11 said it could not rule in the case brought by the environmental organisation Greenpeace and farm groups against the French government's February 1998 decision to allow Novartis' Bt maize to be grown on approximately 30,000 hectares in France, referring the matter for clarification to the European Court of Justice. (See BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest, Vol. 2, Number 38 October 5, 1998).

The Council of State said it could not rule on the case before consulting with the European Court for clarification as to France's obligation, as an EU member, to accept a 1996 European Commission (EC) decision authorising cultivation and sale of genetically modified seed in EU states. The Council of State also questioned whether the EC allowed France all legally mandated opportunities to express its opposition to authorisation of Bt corn. The Council of State move could delay a ruling on the use of the Novartis product for a year, during which time the product would remain under ban.

In its case Greenpeace et al argue that serious scientific doubts remain about the health and environmental risks associated with the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production, and argue that the French Ministry of Agriculture ignored the "principle of precaution" when approving Novartis' Bt corn licence. The precautionary principle - often cited in international environmental policy - is a mechanism used to allow governments to take preventive measures such as a ban before approving a product for use when scientific evidence is lacking regarding public health and environmental ramifications.

The EC corn directive has met opposition in other EU states as well. Austria and Luxembourg have both refused to co-operate with the directive: when the EC threatened to bring the two countries to the European Court to force them to comply, the EC could not win support for such a move from EU member-states. To address the reticence among some member states toward overall GMO use in Europe, the EU Council of Environment Ministers was to meet December 21 to allow member states to outline their positions on proposed revisions to the EU's 1990 directive on Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Organisms.

"French high court delays Bt-corn ruling, demands European Court of Justice opinion," INTERNATIONAL TRADE REPORTER, December 16, 1998; "La commercialisation du maïs transgénique reste suspendue," LE MONDE, December 13-14, 1998; "Blow to hopes for use of genetically altered seed," FINANCIAL TIMES, December 16, 1998.

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