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Europe allows GM sweetcorn amid fears of a US trade war

Genetically modified sweetcorn is to be allowed on to Europe's supermarket shelves; the EU lifted a five-year moratorium on new licences yesterday, despite consumer opposition and a split among national capitals.

The decision to allow imports of tinned or fresh sweetcorn from a plant known as Bt-11, grown in the US, follows years of disagreement among European member states. Bt-11 is already sold in Europe but only in animal feed and food products, including those used in snacks and confectionery. The import of fresh or canned sweetcorn has been held up by a de facto moratorium imposed by countries led by France.

The deadlock was ended yesterday by the European Commission which granted the permission under the EU's complex decision-making rules. A more controversial application for Bt-11, marketed by the Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta, to be grown in the EU is among those to be considered.

Britain was among the countries pressing for the Bt-11 corn to be approved, fearing the failure to admit GM foods from the US could help cause a trade war. Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Italy also backed the corn, with France, Austria, Luxembourg, Denmark, Portugal and Greece against. Belgium, Germany and Spain abstained during the vote, which was taken before the EU enlarged.

Adrian Bebb, GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth said: "There is no future for genetically modified foods or crops in Europe. Politicians may be saying yes but the public is clearly saying no. The European market is virtually dead, regions are banning the growing of GM crops and the industry is packing up and leaving."

Opinion polls have shown up to 70 per cent of the population opposes GM foods, but the EU has put in place a new legal framework. It now has legislation on traceability and on labelling, which will ensure GM products sold in the EU will be marked as such. David Byrne, the European commissioner for health and consumer protection, said rigorous safety tests had been applied, and added: "This is an important day for consumer choice in Europe." Bt-11 is the 35th GM product to win a licence in the EU, and 33 others are in the pipeline, he said.

Applications to cultivate GM plants will prove a bigger test of whether the moratorium is over. Opposition is stiffer because critics fear GM crops will contaminate others. Officials say continuing to block GM imports would have played into the hands of the US, which has a case against the EU at the World Trade Organisation.