In a landmark decision, the European Commission has blocked the first attempt by an EU region to turn itself into a statutory GM-free zone. The EU body ruled that governments that tried to ban genetically-modified crops would be in breach of EU law, in response to a bid by Upper Austria to become GM-free.
In March this year Upper Austria requested a total ban on cultivating genetically modified crops to protect conventional and organic crops, as well as wildlife, from potential contamination. But the Commission has refused, concluding that no new scientific evidence had come to light which might support such a ban. New evidence is one of the few ways a member state can 'derogate' from the EU rules of GM crops.
The decision came to light after scientists at the newly established European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that information submitted by the Austrian authorities fell short of proving the state's case.
Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström called the Austrian request a 'clear-cut case' when she commented on Tuesday: "The Treaty requirements allowing for a derogation from EU legislation are not met and, in its role of guardian of the Treaty, the Commission can only reject the Austrian request."
With global talks on GM foods just around the corner at the WTO trade conference in Mexico next week, the Commission must tread carefully.
Although a staunch defender of its strict new rules on GM foods - some of the toughest in the world - the Commission will also be eager to leave a channel open for discussion on trade.
The US has heavily criticised Europe's stand on GM foods, calling it a barrier to trade. Such is the US ire that it recently asked the World Trade Organisation to set up a dispute panel to decide if Europe's new laws constitute a real obstacle to trade.