European Union ministers were divided on Tuesday (11 February) over whether to allow a new strain of genetically modified maize to be grown on EU soil, handing responsibility for the decision to the European Commission, the EU executive.

Nineteen states opposed approval of the insect-resistant maize, known as Pioneer 1507, developed jointly by DuPont and Dow Chemical, while five supported it and four abstained from any view, EU officials said.

Countries made their positions known in a public debate, but stopped short of a formal vote.

Under the EU weighted voting system, the level of opposition is not enough for a clear rejection, leaving the decision in the hands of the Commission.

Technically, a failure by member states to decide paves the way for automatic approval by the Commission.

If approved, Pioneer 1507 would end Monsanto's monopoly in Europe's small market for GMO crops.

The European Union has only ever approved two other GMO crops for commercial cultivation, a maize type and a potato and the potato was later blocked by a court.

GM crops are widely grown in the Americas and parts of Asia.

However, in Europe, consumer opposition is strong and environmentalists cite scientific research that has highlighted the impact of a toxin released by 1507 on butterflies and moths.

Of the most prominent member states, France has been vehemently opposed to the new GM maize, while Britain has backed it, arguing that Britain risked becoming "the museum of world farming". Germany announced last week it would abstain.

European health commissioner Tonio Borg said extensive research had shown the crop was safe.