With most Europeans showing no appetite for GM produce in food, EU politicians have approved just two varieties for growing in 12 years, compared to more than 150 worldwide.
Under proposals due to be adopted on 13 July, the European Commission will be given greater freedom to approve new GM varieties for cultivation in return for letting EU governments decide whether or not to grow them.
"The idea is to maintain an EU-level approval system, but then leave member states totally free to decide whether or not they want to grow," an EU source familiar with the proposals told Reuters.
Commercial GM planting in Europe last year covered less than 100,000 hectares, mostly in Spain, compared to 134 million hectares globally.
The plan would allow large-scale commercial planting in pro-GM countries such as Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, while legally endorsing existing GM bans in countries including Italy, Austria and Hungary.
But critics say the proposals could spark internal market disputes within Europe, and leave the EU open to legal challenges in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which largely backed a US complaint in 2006 that the EU's GM policy was unscientific.
The new rules were drawn up by Maltese Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner John Dalli, who caused controversy in March by approving cultivation of a GM potato used in starch production (EurActiv 03/03/10).
The plans are based on a joint Austrian-Dutch proposal, which European Commission President José Manuel Barroso pledged to implement last year as part of his bid for reappointment (EurActiv 03/09/09).
The Commission proposal has two main elements, several sources familiar with the details confirmed.
The first is a "fast-track" approach, which will see the Commission issue new guidelines to member states on the "coexistence" of GM and non-GM cultivation.
These would allow countries to set their own technical standards for GM farming, for example requiring buffer zones of 10 km (6.2 miles) between GM and non-GM fields, which would in effect rule out GM cultivation in entire regions and countries.
The second is a "restricted amendment" to current EU legislation on the release of GM organisms in the environment, that would allow countries to ban GM cultivation altogether for reasons other than safety or coexistence grounds.
The legislative change would have to be agreed by a qualified majority of EU governments and the European Parliament under the EU's system of weighted voting.
If the debate cannot be limited to this one change alone as the Commission hopes, it could mean two or more years of complex political argument before a decision is reached.
But with the possibility of cultivation bans already in place because of the guidelines, the EU executive is confident it can win majority support, an EU source said.
When contacted by Reuters, a spokesman for Dalli refused to confirm the details of the plan, but said the commissioner had previously given his backing to the idea and promised to table proposals before the summer.
"Above all he wants to ensure that market operators have a clear legal base," the spokesman said.
Opponents share concerns
"These proposals are legally questionable, contrary to the single market and will sow deep division between the member states," said an industry source who is familiar with the plan but asked not to be named.
The move could open new European markets for biotech companies such as Monsanto, Dow Agrosciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals, and Syngenta.
Environmental campaigners who were briefed on the proposal by the Commission on Thursday said it confirmed Barroso's intention to promote GM cultivation in Europe.
"Although we welcome the move to allow countries to ban GM crops, it is being pushed to unblock the approvals process and allow more GM crops to be grown," said Adrian Bebb, food and agriculture campaigner with Friends of the Earth.
"The public and environment will only be protected if the Commission's proposal is backed up by Europe-wide measures to prevent our food and feed from being contaminated. Until then we need an immediate ban on growing GM crops," he added.
(EurActiv with Reuters.)