No potato. Protests against genetically modified potatoes in Germany in 2010.

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No potato. Protests against genetically modified potatoes in Germany in 2010.

E.U. Court Annuls GM Potato Approval

The General Court of the European Union has annulled the authorization to grow and sell a genetically modified (GM) potato called Amflora in the European Union.

The court's ruling will have no effect on the potato's cultivation or sale, since Amflora's manufacturer, BASF Plant Science, withdrew from the European market last year. But the judgment, issued today in Luxembourg, deals a blow to the European Commission and may have an impact on the approval of a GM maize variety, which the commission tried to drive forward last month after a lengthy deadlock.

The Amflora potato is engineered to produce one particular type of starch that can be used to make paper pulp or glue, or to produce animal feed. It is also resistant to some antibiotics of the aminoglycoside family, which the World Health Organization deems important for human and animal health.

In 2005, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that Amflora was safe for human health and the environment. Based on this advice, the commission issued a draft decision to authorize the crop but member states did not sign off on it.  GM crops remain controversial in Europe, where national attitudes range from completely opposed to cautiously accepting.

The commission requested another scientific opinion to clear out doubts; EFSA confirmed in 2009 that Amflora was safe, although two experts cited concerns about the possible transfer of the antibiotic resistance gene from the crop to bacteria.

Based on EFSA's “consolidated opinion,” the commission authorized Amflora in March 2010—but without first submitting the decision to the relevant committee of member states' representatives. Hungary challenged that decision in court, with support from Austria, France, Luxembourg, and Poland.

The court has now ruled in Hungary's favor, saying the commission broke the rules: The scientific basis for the decision had changed, and member states should have been able to consider the amended proposal.

This setback for the commission comes hot on the heels of censure from the court last month for sitting too long on a similar file for the authorization of Pioneer's GM maize 1507.

Greenpeace European Unit (EU) and other environmental groups welcomed today's ruling, and called on the commission to withdraw its proposal to approve maize 1507. According to Marco Contiero, Greenpeace's agriculture policy director in Brussels, the commission made the same mistake in both instances: It did not allow the member states' committee to vote on its proposal after EFSA updated its scientific opinions. “The commission should think twice and not rush things through just because the [political] climate seems a bit better,” Contiero says.

A commission spokesman says its legal services will analyze the ruling and its possible consequences, acknowledging that today's judgment could have an impact on the pending maize 1507 file.

Meanwhile, Peter Eckes, president of BASF Plant Science in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, says the ruling confirms that the company was right to abandon the European market. “The court’s ruling once again shows that BASF took the right decision in January 2012 to focus its plant biotechnology activities on promising markets” in America and Asia, Eckes tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail statement, adding that the judgment had no bearing on the scientific evaluation of Amflora.

Posted in Environment, Europe, Plants & Animals, Policy