In a marathon negotiating session which ended after 20 hours at 5.30am, ministers rejected calls from France for a formal moratorium on new GM applications, after British objections that such as move would be illegal.
However France, Italy, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg made clear that they will form a blocking minority if further licences are sought between now and the date at which the new regime comes into force. With the measures requiring approval from the European Parliament, that will probably not be until 2002.
A spokesman for the European Commission, which has not granted an approval for more than a year, conceded that none are likely in the near future, although 11 applications from seven member states are in the pipeline. "For the last year it has not been possible to reach a qualified majority of member states," he said, "after the council meeting yesterday the chances of having a new release approved have not improved."
Diplomats argue that the current, de facto, moratorium will continue, even if there has been no formal declaration. One argued: "There will be a moratorium but, clearly, member states cannot say: `we are not going to apply the law.'"
The declaration of war on GM applications from a range of countries is likely to strain transatlantic trade relations, and anger bio-tech companies such as Monsanto, which has been in the forefront of gene manipulation.
The ministers agreed to update the existing directive 90/220, including a new regime to continue monitoring GM foods once they come onto the market. They will have to have new "risk assessment" rules will be introduced to monitor scientific evidence.
Products containing more than a certain percentage of genetically altered ingredients will have to bear a label that reads: "This product contains genetically modified organisms.''
All new GM plants and seeds approved for sale will have to apply for re-approval after 10 years, scrapping permanent consent currently available.
Environment minister Michael Meacher said: "No-one can now and in the future seriously argue that the regulatory procedures are not tight, comprehensive and balanced and in my opinion very effective."Reuse content