STRASBOURG European Union lawmakers voted on Tuesday to strengthen proposals to let governments decide whether to grow or ban genetically modified (GM) crops, designed to break a deadlock in EU GM crop approvals.
Despite the majority backing of the European Parliament for the plans, continued opposition from several large EU member states means the draft legislation is unlikely to be finalized this year, if at all.
EU lawmakers agreed that governments should be free to ban the cultivation of GM crops based on environmental concerns, such as to protect biodiversity or prevent the spread of "super weeds" that are resistant to herbicides.
Critics of GM crops say herbicides used in conjunction with the plants -- such as Monsanto Co's Roundup Ready -- promote widespread resistance among weeds, or super weeds.
In its original proposal the EU's executive, the European Commission, said governments should not use environmental or health grounds as a justification for bans, as these are already taken into account during the EU safety approval process.
In a statement, the European Parliament said allowing countries to justify bans on environmental grounds would ensure such restrictions were more likely to survive legal challenges in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Lawmakers added an amendment to the proposals that would force all EU countries to adopt rules to prevent GM contamination of conventional and organic crops.
LONG DEBATE TO COME
Environmental groups welcomed the vote as a sign the European Parliament would take a strong position against any attempts to force EU countries into allowing GM crop cultivation in their territories.
"This is a clear signal from MEPs that they are on the side of the majority of European citizens who oppose GM crops," Friends of the Earth food campaigner Mute Schimpf said in a statement.
But the EU's biotech industry said the vote revealed how politicized the issue of regulating GM crops had become in Europe.
"If member states can opt out of a product approval system simply because of political preference, without any scientific reasoning, the result will be more uncertainty and less choice for farmers," said Carel du Marchie Sarvaas of EU biotech industry association EuropaBio.
The draft rules must be jointly approved by EU governments before becoming law.
France, Germany and others have refused to discuss the proposals in detail, citing fears they breach world trade rules and could lead to legal challenges by biotech companies, exporting countries and EU farmers.
Poland has not announced any plans to discuss the proposals during its six-month presidency of the EU that runs until the end of 2011.
(Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac; writing by Charlie Dunmore; editing by James Jukwey)