Commercial GM crop growing has moved a step closer after EU environment ministers agreed to remove a political block on the use of the technology.
The deal struck ends a requirement to have EU-wide agreement before GM crops can be grown. Instead, the power to decide on GM crop use will be handed to individual member states.
It could mean farmers in England, where Westminster has voiced its approval of agricultural biotechnology, will be given a green light to grow GMs while Scotland and Wales will continue to face a ban.
See also: Paterson backs fast-track GM proposal
The decision still needs to progress to the EU Parliament and states will only be allowed to grow varieties that have been approved by Brussels but Defra secretary Owen Paterson said that the agreement was a “major advance”.
“This is a real step forward in unblocking the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops, which is letting down our farmers and stopping scientific development.
“If the European Parliament passes this law, farmers in all regions of the UK will have more power in deciding whether to grow GM crops that have passed a robust, independent safety assessment,” Mr Paterson said.
“Resolving the gridlock in Europe will boost scientific research and investment in the UK, a key part of our long-term economic plan.”
However, the deal has been greeted with disapproval by both the pro- and anti-GM camps.
The European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio) said it was disappointed by the deal which set a dangerous precedent for EU policy.
EuropaBio chairman André Goig said: “It shows the lack of willingness of the EU institutions and member states to correctly implement the current regulatory framework for GM approvals they had decided upon themselves.
“To re-nationalise a common EU policy, based on non-objective grounds, is a negative precedent and contrary to the spirit of the single market.”
He added: “In particular, it would allow member states to formally reject a technology on non-scientific grounds, which sets a dangerous precedent and sends a negative signal for innovative industries considering whether or not to operate in Europe.
“In the end it should be up to farmers to decide what they want to plant in their fields.”
Mr Goig repeated a call for products to fulfil the EU’s science-based risk assessment requirements as set out in the EU legislation to be authorised without undue delay.
The Brussels deal has also angered anti GM campaigner and organic lobby group The Soil Association.
Its policy director, Peter Melchett, said: “Most English farmers now face a looming threat to their business. The decision is likely to leave English farmers at a huge economic disadvantage. If so, it would be catastrophic for all farmers in England – not just organic farmers.
“If these new EU proposals are finally adopted, most countries in the EU, including Scotland and Wales, will remain GM free, as countries like France and Poland already are.”
Mr Melchett added that the agreement meant England risked losing export markets and cited Russia’s proposed banning of GM imports.
He also said that conventional and organic growers needed regulatory protection.
“The European Parliament inserted a new clause on the liability for damage caused by GM crops into this proposal. The European Parliament text also significantly improves existing EU law by making it compulsory for member states to implement rules that prevent contamination of the GM-free sector. It is vital that the European Parliament continue to insist on these amendments.”