The EU’s highest court has decreed that crops developed through new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) – also known as gene editing technologies – should be considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and fall under the EU’s GMO directive.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) found that organisms created through NPBTs were, in principle, subject to the regulations defined in the EU GMO directive, Reuters reported on 25 July.

“The ECJ takes the view, first of all, that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs within the meaning of the GMO Directive, in so far as the techniques and methods of mutagenesis alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally,” the ECJ said.

“The Court considers that the risks linked to the use of these new mutagenesis techniques might prove to be similar to those that result from the production and release of a GMO through transgenesis,” it added.

The ECJ opinion was opposed to that presented by ECJ advocate general Michal Bobek, who in January said he did not believe NPBT crops should fall under GMO regulation.

However, the court added that the GMO Directive would not apply to “organisms obtained by means of certain mutagenesis techniques, namely those which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record.

European biotech players were disappointed by the decision, with the German chemical industry association VCI – representing firms such as BASF, Bayer and Merck KGaA – calling it “backward looking and hostile to progress”.

József Máté, corporate communications leader at Corteva Agriscience, said: “While we certainly need more time to carefully analyse the potential impact of the ruling, it is obvious that subjecting plants obtained through using the latest plant breeding methods to the GMO legislation of the EU will prohibit European consumers, producers, researchers and entrepreneurs from accessing the benefits of these innovations.”

Environmental groups and GMO opponents, including Greenpeace and European organic movement IFOAM EU, had called NPBTs an attempt to sneak GMOs in through the back door and hailed the court decision as a victory.

NPBT technologies include a variety of scientific methods – among them the well-known CRISPR platform – which can be used to genetically engineer traits such as drought tolerance and pest resistance without the introduction of DNA from other species.

The ECJ case was brought on by French farmers in 2016 when they asked the court to clarify whether a variety of herbicide resistant rapeseed, developed through NPBTs, should follow the EU GMO approval process, wrote Euractiv.