This marks the second time the Council has rejected proposals from the Commission requesting Austria to repeal the temporary precautionary measures concerning the use and sale of two genetically modified (GM) maize varieties.
MON 819 is designed to resist the corn borer moth larva, and is currently already grown in other countries, including Spain, France, Germany, Portugal and the Czech Republic. T25 allows for the use of a broad-spectrum herbicide for weed control without damaging the crop.
But Austria has remained firm in its ban of the varieties, a stance that has resulted in repeated attempts to overturn the decision.
The first proposal to legalize MON 810 and T25 was rejected by the Environment Council in June 2005. The Commission consequently re-consulted the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which concluded in March this year that there was no reason to believe that the continued sale of these products was likely to cause any adverse effects for human and animal health or the environment.
Therefore in October 2006, the Commission re-submitted its proposals to repeal the Austrian safeguard measures on the grounds that there are no scientific elements to justify their maintenance, which are against the principle of free movement of authorised products.
But at the latest session of the Council, these proposals gathered the opposition of a qualified majority of Member States.
According to the Council, the decisions were justified because the two maize lines had been approved under an old directive, which has since been replaced by a newer one. This latest directive contains harmonized environmental risk assessment criteria for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the two GM products have not yet undergone a procedure of re-approval and re-assessment in accordance with the new directive.
The Council also noted that where the conditions set out in the relevant legislation apply, a Member State may restrict the use and sale of a GMO in accordance with a safeguard clause in the new directive.
In addition, the Council said that the different agricultural structures and regional ecological characteristics in the European Union need to be taken into account in a more systematic manner in the environmental risk assessment of GMOs.
But according to the European biotechnology industry association EuropaBio, the Council's decision has "seriously damaged the credibility of the regulatory system on which much of Europe's innovative and industrial capacity relies" .
"The EU's own scientific assessments have repeatedly made clear that there is no reason to consider that the products constitute a risk to human health or the environment. The Council is undermining the authority of its own expert advisors. Europe is the only region in the world that votes on its science, the community must start to believe its own scientific opinions," said Johan Vanhemelrijck, EuropaBio's Secretary General.
The decision is "an alarming indifference to the EU's own rules, and to common sense", according to Simon Barber, the associations director.
"The further information the Council requested in 2005 has now been provided, and it indicates unambiguously that the products carry none of the risks alleged. But still the Council declines to follow the advice of the EU's own expert advisory bodies. This departure from rational decision-making is disconcerting - not only for these two products, but for every innovator in every industrial sector that is subject to EU regulation," he said.