BRUSSELS - Individual EU nations will be free to ban genetically modified crops, even if they are deemed safe and approved, under rule changes being drawn up by Brussels to unblock the clearance process.
EU Health Commissioner John Dalli, in charge of the emotive dossier, will hand over plans to national capitals and the EU parliament for their consideration next month, Green groups and Brussels sources said on Friday following a series of briefings.
GMO supporters cite the benefits of growing crops with higher yields, more resistance to pests and disease, and requiring less fertiliser and pesticide.
Opponents speak of 'frankenfoods' which will inevitably contaminate other crops and for which there can be no definitive evidence of their safety.
While the European Commission would not confirm the plans, a spokesman said there are no immediate moves to authorise more GMO crops.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth said there were two main planks to the planned rule changes,
The first is "to allow member states full flexibility to ban GM crops," with that right extended to regions within a country, a very important point in Germany and its substantially autonomous regions, or Laenders.
The other proposed change is to guidelines for preventing cross-pollination with normal, non-GM crops, something which is of major concern to both farmers and environmentalists.
Under the new rules, EU nations would be obliged to prevent cross-pollination but free to decide how to do so, leaving the possibility -- not currently available -- for governments to set however wide a boundary they think is necessary or desirable between different crops.
Friends of the Earth "cautiously welcomed" the initiatives but warned that by seeking to end the impasse on the subject, Brussels could also be opening the door for pro-GM member states to cultivate more GM crops.
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"The public and environment will only be protected if the proposal is backed up by Europe-wide measures to prevent our food and feed from being contaminated," said the group's food and agriculture campaigner Adrian Bebb.
The issue, which is still being discussed in Brussels, is set to get a preliminary airing at a meeting of EU environment ministers next week, though may not come fully into effect for a couple of years given the approval and law changes required.
The level of concern was demonstrated in March when the European Commission approved the cultivation of a type of genetically-modified potato, prompting an angry response from environmental campaign groups and two EU member governments.
Austria said it was planning an immediate ban on cultivation, while Italy's agriculture minister slammed the commission's decision and vowed to defend "traditional agriculture and citizens' health."
That was the first approval of genetically modified foods in Europe for 12 years and the protests came despite the fact that the Amflora potatoes developed by German chemical giant BASF will not be for human consumption.
Before the potato, MON 810, a strain of genetically modified maize made by US firm Monsanto, was the only GM plant allowed to be grown in Europe although some other GM maize types may be sold within the EU.
Seven countries including France and Germany have banned MON 810 maize, citing contamination risks.
Those bans had to be justified by the nations involved and authorised by Brussels, leaving plenty of room for the kind of conflict and delays the EU is seeking to avoid in future.
Greenpeace expert Marco Contiero told AFP that his group welcomes the proposal to allow countries to ban GMOs but added that "we don't want this proposal to be used to water down the current EU legislative system," by lessening the safeguards required for the crops to be grown.