The pro-GMO front rejoiced when the European Court of Justice published its sentence on the Fidenato case, but nothing has changed with regard to GMOs in Italy
Fidenato and GMOs are synonymous in Italy. Fidenato is in fact the surname of a Friulian farmer named Giorgio who, in favour of genetically modified crops, tried for years to illegally plant type Mon810 corn patented by the Monsanto multinational in his firm’s fields, in the town of Vivaro. Every time he appealed to an Italian tribunal, Fidenato had his appeal rejected. The key year was 2015 when both the regional administrative court of Friuli Venezia Giulia and the State Council rejected his appeal. The State Council explained its decision by pointing out that, while awaiting new EU measures, a state belonging to the European Union “can decide if and for how long to maintain the national emergency measures adopted”.
The judge also recognised that the Ministers for Health, Agriculture and the Environment had “correctly ascertained that the retention [by Fidenato] of Mon810 corn crops without suitable management methods did not sufficiently protect the environment or the biodiversity, thus justifying the adoption of the contested emergency measures”. Our country was applying the sacrosanct precautionary principle.
However, Fidenato was not about to give up and he also appealed to the European Court of Justice, the verdict arriving just a few days ago, on 13 September. The Court clarified three aspects.
The first is that the European Commission is not bound to adopt emergency measures on GMOs if there is no serious “manifest risk” for human and animal health, or for the environment, even if encouraged by a member state.
The second is that even if the Commission does not adopt measures, this does not mean that a state cannot adopt them on a national level and renew them until the Commission makes a decision.
The third aspect is the one that has created a great deal of confusion as to information methods. The court in fact clarified that nations were unable to adopt emergency measures such as the banning of GMO corn crops - something that was foreseen by the 2013 Italian decree – without first confirming whether the GMO product in question carries a “serious and clear” risk for human health and for the environment.
On this point, Fidenato and his GMO supporters celebrated. But Fidenato can only celebrate in terms of his own story, considering that the Italian regulatory framework remains unchanged and that GMOs continue to be banned, because, in 2015, the European Union decided to clarify the situation by introducing a directive regarding the possibility for member states to limit or ban GMO crops on their land. The directive is very clear and worded as follows: “Cultivation may however require more flexibility in certain instances as it is an issue with strong national, regional and local dimensions, given its link to land use, to local agricultural structures and to the protection or maintenance of habitats, ecosystems and landscapes”. And adds that “Member States are entitled to have the possibility to adopt legally binding acts restricting or prohibiting the cultivation of GMOs in their territory after such GMOs have been authorised to be placed on the Union market”.
And yet many websites and reporters have used the verb “beating” in reference to the European Court’s sentence, which declared Fidenato as being in the right rather than Italy. Almost as if it were sanctioning the use of GMOs in our country’s agricultural fields. This is not the case. The Court has only protected a citizen bureaucratically speaking, because effectively, in that precise historic moment, the Italian decree only anticipated what Europe then modified and made its own: the precautionary principle.
The main issue remains unchanged then. Italy can continue to ban GMO seeds to protect the environment even if there is only a risk, and not actual “serious and clear” damage. Fidenato has won only a minor battle of our times then, not the war on principles.