BRUSSELS — 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.
“Issues related to the placing on the market and the import of GMOs should remain regulated at EU level,” according to the ministerial accord reached Thursday in Luxembourg. “Cultivation may, however, require more flexibility in certain instances as it is an issue with strong national, regional and local dimensions.”
The draft law aims to accelerate endorsements at EU level of requests to plant gene-altered seeds made by companies such as Monsanto Co. A split in Europe over the safety of 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 European Commission, the EU’s Brussels-based regulatory arm that put forward the 2010 proposal, wants to expand 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.
Under the ministerial accord, any EU government could request that an applicant for authorization to grow gene- modified crops in the bloc “adjust the geographical scope” of its request “to the effect that part or all of the territory of that member state be excluded from cultivation.”
Should the applicant oppose the adjustment sought, the EU government would have the right to “adopt measures restricting or prohibiting the cultivation of that GMO in all or part of its territory once authorized,” according to the ministerial deal.
Furthermore, any EU government that didn’t seek an exclusion from the geographical scope of a cultivation approval at the time of the application would, after two years, have the right to request such an exemption based on “new objective circumstances,” according to the accord.
The EU ended a six-year ban on new gene-altered products in 2004 after tightening labeling rules and creating a food agency to screen applications.
In a case brought by the U.S., Canada and Argentina, the World Trade Organization ruled in 2006 that the European moratorium was illegal.
Neither the rule-changes during the moratorium nor the WTO verdict altered an impasse in the EU over planting GMOs.
Since 2004, the EU has let new gene-modified products be imported for food and feed uses while stopping short of endorsing any request for cultivation with the exception of one application for a potato developed by BASF SE to be grown for the production of industrial starch.
The BASF potato is no longer grown in the EU, leaving a Monsanto corn variety approved in 1998 as the only gene-modified crop commercially cultivated in the bloc, according to the commission.
In a process that has dragged out decisions on biotech-food applications for years, national authorities throughout the EU have a say over European-level approvals because the bloc’s common-market rules require that a product sold in one member state be allowed for sale in the others.
The European Parliament gave its initial endorsement in July 2011 to the commission proposal to allow post-authorization opt-outs regarding GMO cultivation. The draft law had been held up by opposition from countries including France and Germany.
Both France and Germany switched positions Thursday. Germany said it would use the planned legal flexibility to ban the cultivation of GMOs approved by the EU.
“Germany will take part in the possibility to do this opt- out,” German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks told reporters in Luxembourg. “This is a new position from Germany and I’m very proud that we now have this position.”
The accord among EU environment ministers sets the stage for talks between governments and the EU Parliament to iron out differences and strike a final agreement.