BRUSSELS Austria and Hungary reaffirmed their sovereign right on Monday to ban growing genetically modified maize after EU environment ministers squashed more attempts by the European Commission to lift the restrictions.
In a stinging rebuff to the EU's executive arm, an overwhelming majority of countries -- at least 21 out of the bloc's 27 member states -- voted against draft orders for Vienna and Budapest to end their GM crop bans within 20 days.
EU law provides for national GMO bans under certain circumstances if the government can justify the prohibition.
It was the third time that the Commission had tried to get Austria's bans lifted and the second time for Hungary, with all the attempts roundly rejected by ministers in the past.
National GMO bans are the only area of EU biotech policy where countries can muster enough consensus under the bloc's complex weighted voting rules to secure an agreement. On applications for new GM products, for example, they are always deadlocked, leading to default approvals by the Commission.
Hungary's ban relates to MON 810 maize, developed and marketed by U.S. biotech company Monsanto and the only GM crop that may so far be commercially grown in the EU. The Commission first tried to get the ban lifted in February 2007.
Austria has also banned cultivation of MON 810 maize, as well as that of T25 maize, made by German drugs and chemicals group Bayer. EU ministers rejected Commission plans to get those two bans lifted in June 2005 and December 2006.
"We have completely prevailed. This is for me as if Austria won the European football championship," Austria's Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich told a news conference, calling the ministers' vote an "historic success."
One of the EU's most GMO-wary member states, Austria, is the only remaining country cited in the World Trade Organization case filed against the European Commission by major GM crop growers Argentina, Canada and the United States that still applies bans on specific GM products.
Austria used to have a ban on the import and processing of both GM maize products but was ordered to lift them in May 2008.
European consumers are well known for their skepticism, if not hostility, to GM crops, often called "Frankenstein foods."
The biotech industry says its products are as safe as conventional equivalents. European biotech association EuropaBio called the vote a "political side-step," saying it was incomprehensible that some EU countries had chosen to ignore scientific evidence on the safety of the two GM maize types.
The EU has not approved any GM crops for commercial growing since 1998, when MON 810 maize first gained its authorization.
And last month, EU biotech experts failed to get a consensus to approve similar orders for France and Greece to scrap bans on growing MON 810 maize, escalating the decision to ministers.
Green groups, along with Germany's Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, were unimpressed with the Commission's fruitless attempts to force Austria and Hungary to end their GMO bans.
"I cannot imagine that a U.S. government would be so engaged for a European company if its citizens were that much concerned, as the Commission is engaged for an American company," Gabriel told a news conference.
Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU GMO policy director, called the vote a "major embarrassment" for the Commission, saying: "For the fourth time, EU governments have rejected a Commission proposal to lift national bans on GM crops."
(additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach)
(Reporting by Pete Harrison, writing by Jeremy Smith; editing by Peter Blackburn)