A decision had been expected yesterday, with all the signs indicating that the oft-criticised moratorium on GM products in the EU would finally be lifted - a cause of much concern for environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth.
But the Regulatory Committee on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, part of the Environment Directorate, failed to reach the qualified majority necessary to support the proposal put forward by the Commission, meaning that the decision will now be taken by the Council of Ministers.
The Commission will now formally adopt the proposal that the Monsanto maize finally be allowed into the EU, before passing it on to the Council. The proposal can be either adopted or rejected with a qualified majority.
If no decision is taken after three months, the file returns to the Commission which can then adopt it.
If authorised, the maize, which has been modified for increased tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, would be clearly labelled as containing GM maize.
It would only be allowed for import after 18 April 2004, when the new EU rules on GMOs enter into application, and after the authorisation for food uses of NK603 has been granted as part of the new EU GM Food legislation.
The Commission is determined to press ahead with the approval process despite the ongoing opposition to GM foods from European consumers. The Commission is under intense pressure from the US and other countries where GM crops are already grown to allow these products to be imported into the 15 - an soon to be 25 - country trading bloc.
But even if the ban is lifted, will there really be much of a market for GM crops in Europe? The overwhelming majority of consumers are still opposed to any form of GM products, and with all novel food products having to be clearly labelled, they will be able to vote with their wallets and simply not buy them.
In any case, the decision to allow the import of NK603 - if it is eventually taken - will not pave the way for the immediate planting of GM crops in European farms. That decision will be taken at a later date, no doubt amid much heated debate, but allowing GM crops to be sold in the Union is seen my most opponents as the thin edge of the wedge, making approval for full-scale farming of GM crops an inevitability.
The NK603 maize was cleared for crop production in the US in 2000 and in Japan and Canada in 2001, and all these countries allow its use in human food and animal feed. Australia joined the club in 2002 when it cleared the way for NK 603 use in food, although it is still banned in animal feed and crop production.
Non-GM maize, or corn, is grown commercially in over 100 countries, with a combined global harvest of 590 million metric tonnes. The major producers of maize in 2000 were the US, China, Brazil, Mexico, France, and Argentina. Maize is grown primarily for its kernel, which is largely refined into products used in a wide range of food, medical, and industrial goods.