Technology can help foster specific positive traits in plants but can also have potentially dangerous ‘off-target’ effects, say critics.

Gene editing technologies should be largely exempted from EU laws on GM food, although individual states can regulate them if they choose, the European court’s advocate general has said.

The opinion may have far-reaching consequences for new breeding techniques that can remove specific parts of a plant’s genetic code and foster herbicide-resistant traits.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the technology, which could be subject to labelling, authorisation and safety checks, if the court decides it falls under the EU’s GM legislation later this year.

But in a complex preliminary opinion, Michal Bobek advised that “organisms obtained by mutagenesis” should not be seen as genetically modified, unless they contained recombinant nucleic acid molecules or other GM organisms.

Biotech industries argue that gene editing-type alterations could occur naturally through evolution, but critics counter that they involve genetic mutations that are lab-based and artificial by definition.

Dr Michael Antoniou, the head of the molecular genetics department at King’s College London, said exempting new plant-breeding technologies from GM laws was “wrong and potentially dangerous”.

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