For the first time in Europe's history, and in the face of strong opposition, European countries will be able to grow GM maize in their fields as Brussels waves through a biotech corn into the EU's catalogue.
Meeting yesterday, the European Commission cleared 17 varieties derived from MON 810 maize, a corn suitable for food products and designed by biotech giant Monsanto, adding them to the common EU catalogue of varieties of agricultural plant species.
"The maize has been thoroughly assessed to be safe for human health and environment. It has been grown in Spain for years without any known problems. It will be clearly labelled as GM maize to allow farmers a choice," commented David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.
GM ingredients are regarded with some suspicion by consumers in Europe and as such are used infrequently in food formulations by food manufacturers who do not want to see sales dip.
But Brussels recently pushed through tough new rules on the labelling of GM ingredients in a bid to make such foodstuffs more easily accessible to the market. The move yesterday is part of the GM 'friendly' package.
MON 810 maize has been approved in the EU since 1998 and the 17 varieties of maize derived from this corn are already inscribed in national catalogues: six are listed in France and eleven are listed in Spain.
Once a variety of seed is properly inscribed in a national catalogue, the Commission is informed and is required to inscribe the variety in the 'Common Catalogue', clearing the way for marketing in the entire EU. But varieties just present in a country's national catalogue are only available on the market of the country concerned.
This latest move from Brussels has angered green groups, who condemned the decision because of the threat posed to food, farming and the environment.
"This European decision is a recipe for disaster. The majority British consumers do not want GM food or crops, especially as there are no rules in place to prevent GM contamination. The UK government must act now to protect our food, farming and environment and prevent this GM maize from being grown here," said Friends of the Earth's GM-free Britain campaigner Clare Oxborrow.
Going one step further, the environmental group said that, according to a leaked communication from Commissioner David Byrne, any member state may object to the marketing on their territory of any such GM variety if they consider there is a risk for human health, the environment or agronomic reasons.
Also yesterday, the Commission delayed a long awaited and much disputed decision on the level of genetically-modified organisms that could be allowed in seeds in the EU, saying it did not have enough information on the economic impact of such a decision.
"It is regrettable that, once again, the Commission has chosen to ignore its responsibility to establish a common European legal basis for the setting of thresholds for trace levels of GM seed in conventional seed," commented Simon Barber, director of biotech industry body EuropaBio.
"It is economically unsustainable and will unnecessarily harm the competitiveness of the European industry and its customers, the European farmers community," he added.
Sparking further controversy, the Commission also said on Wednesday that it favoured allowing Monsanto to sell a genetically-modified oilseed rape known as GT73 in the 25-nation European Union.
Monsanto wants to sell its oilseed rape for industrial processing and animal feed. The seed has been modified to resist a herbicide also produced by Monsanto. The proposal will now go to EU governments, which could either approve or reject the proposal by qualified majority. If the EU countries take no decision after three months, the Commission will have the final say.