European governments agreed to go their own way on the cultivation of genetically modified crops, ending years of legislative deadlock.
European Union environment ministers decided to let individual member countries ban the planting of gene-altered crops so EU nations that favor such seeds can grow them, denting a free-trade tenet of the bloc.
The ministers swung behind a 2010 proposal to give national governments, when it comes to cultivating gene-altered crops, an opt-out from rules making the 28-member bloc a single market. The opt-out option would follow any EU authorization to grow such foods, known as gene-modified organisms, or GMOs.
"This is a real step forward in unblocking the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops, which is currently letting down our farmers and stopping scientific development," U.K. Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson said after the accord today in Luxembourg.
The draft law aims to accelerate endorsements at EU level of requests to plant gene-altered seeds made by companies such as Monsanto Co. and declared safe by European scientists. A political split in Europe over the risks posed by GMOs has delayed EU permission to grow them and prompted complaints by the U.S. and other trade partners seeking to expand the global biotech-seed market, valued at almost $16 billion last year.
The biotech-food industry criticized the planned rule changes, with the European Association for Bioindustries saying they "renationalize" EU policy and Monsanto alleging they disregard science.
"This decision would be tragic-comic if it didn’t send such a bad signal to the rest of the world that it’s okay to ignore science and ban things for populist purposes," Brandon Mitchener, a Brussels-based spokesman for Monsanto, said in an e-mail. "The proposal makes it clear that the EU’s objections to GM crops are political rather than scientific."
The European Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm that put forward the 2010 proposal, wants to enlarge Europe’s share of the biotech-seed market in the face of resistance by half or more of the bloc’s members. Surveys show opposition to gene- altered foods by European consumers, who worry about risks such as human resistance to antibiotics and the development of so- called superweeds that are impervious to herbicides.
Biotech foods range from corn to oilseeds in which genetic material has been altered to add traits such as resistance to weed-killing chemicals.