Cultivating GM crops in Europe is under unprecedented threat after top European officials recommended a ban for the first time on two modified varieties on safety grounds, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Confidential documents reveal that Stavros Dimas, the EU's Environment Commissioner, wants to refuse approval for cultivation of the two crops – both types of maize genetically engineered to resist pests – because they pose "unacceptable" risks.
The move, which is seen by environmentalists and by the biotech industry as setting an important precedent, has come as a shock, because all previous GM applications have been nodded through in Brussels.
Peter Mandelson, the Trade Commissioner, is fighting the recommendation. If it goes through it could lead to the end of all cultivation of genetically modified crops in the EU – because the only crop now being grown in member countries is similar to the two controversial varieties. And that would lead to a ferocious row with the Bush administration in the United States.
The two types of maize – one produced by biotech giant Syngenta, the other by Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Dow – are modified to produce an insecticide to kill the European corn borer, which affects about a quarter of the Continent's crop.
They have twice been cleared by the European Food Safety Authority, which critics allege is pro-GM, but Mr Dimas said that new scientific research has since raised doubts about their safety.
Separate studies have suggested that the plants' insecticide harms butterflies and gets into streams, where it poisons aquatic life. Another shows that the amount of the chemical produced by the maize varies enormously from place to place and even between plants in the same field, which "may lead to unpredictable interactions with the environment that could cause adverse effects".
For both types of maize, the confidential documents conclude that "the level of risk generated by this product for the environment is unacceptable".
The recommendation will now go to the full Commission, then to a committee of officials of member states and then, if they do not agree, to ministers. If upheld, it will herald a revolution in the EU's approach to GM. For years the Commission has been nodding through applications to import GM crops for human consumption and animal feed. It has also previously approved all bids to market GM seeds for cultivation, but these are the first two crops to come before it since 1998.
Refusal of permission therefore would, as the industry itself admits, set a devastating precedent.
Even more significantly, it would seriously threaten the future of the only crop – a similar GM maize – now being grown on the Continent, as its approval comes up for renewal next year. Austria, Hungary and Poland have all banned this maize, and last month President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that its cultivation would be suspended in France – one of the seven European countries where it is grown. It is not formally banned in Britain, but none is grown here.
The European Association for Bioindustries attacks President Sarkozy's decision as "flying in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and positive commercial experience of biotech crops around the world", and fears that other rejections will follow if Brussels rules against the two new crops.
Any further setbacks for GM crops in the EU would put it on collision course with the US, which recently took Europe to the World Trade Organisation for not approving GM products rapidly enough.
Clare Oxborrow, GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "This could – and should – be the beginning of the end for GM crops in Europe."