In recent weeks, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has issued rulings in two cases involving genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In one, the court determined that honey with trace amounts of pollen from GM corn must be labeled as such and undergo a full safety authorization before it can be sold to consumers. Case C-442/09, Bablock v. Bayern, 2011 ECJ (Sept. 6, 2011). According to green groups, this “groundbreaking” decision could force the European Union (EU) to strengthen its already tight restrictions on GMOs.  

In the second case, the ECJ specified under what directives and regulations EU member states may provisionally suspend or prohibit the sale or use of genetically modified food and feed. Cases C-58/10 to C-68/10, Monsanto SAS v. Ministre de l’Agriculture et de la Pêche, 2011 ECJ (Sept. 8, 2011). The ruling arose from a case involving a French prohibition on the planting of MON 810 maize seeds.

While some may have concluded that the court struck down the French GMO ban, the ruling was more limited, with the ECJ indicating that member states may adopt such bans under the emergency measures clause of Regulation 1829/2003, which “requires Member States to establish, in addition to urgency, the existence of a situation which is likely to constitute a clear and serious risk to human health, animal health or the environment.” The ECJ also indicated that member states wishing to adopt emergency GMO measures must comply with “the procedural conditions set out in Article 54 of Regulation No 178/2002.” See The Guardian, September 7, 2011.  

Thijs Etty, Assistant Professor of EU Law at VU University Amsterdam, noted that while the decision represents a “symbolic victory” for Monsanto and the EU Commission, “its practical impact may be more limited than might appear at first sight: with yesterday’s ruling on zero tolerance for GMO pollen in bees opening up once again the coexistence debate full swing, combined with the ongoing discussions about the Commission’s very flawed proposal for legislation to supposedly allow member states to ban cultivation of GMOs on their territory, . . . today’s decision by the ECJ may only serve to further convince many member states that they need much stronger rules in place to allow them to ban cultivation.”