Germany, along with at least 20 other EU member states, has voted down a European Commission attempt to have Austria and Hungary lift bans on growing genetically modified (GM) maize.
Austria and Hungary have maintained their right to ban GM crops, for now
EU environment ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday, March 2, voted against forcing Vienna and Budapest to allow US biotech giant Monsanto's MON810 GM maize grain to be grown in their countries.
Only four EU nations -- Britain, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden -- supported the commission's effort to have the Austrian and Hungarian bans lifted.
The outcome of the vote reaffirmed Austria's and Hungary's assertion that it is their sovereign right to prohibit GM crops, Austria's Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich told a news conference after the vote.
"We have completely prevailed," he said. "This is for me as if Austria won the European football championship."
Legal, but controversial
Under EU law, member states can legislate a national ban on genetically modified organisms (GMO) if the government in question can justify the prohibition.
It was the third time that the commission had tried to force Austria to lift its ban, and the second time for Hungary. Austria also has a "safeguard" ban on Germany's Bayer AG's T25 GM corn.
Both varieties have been approved for use in the EU by the commission, but debate in Europe continues over the potential of GM seeds to accidentally spread and adversely affect natural surroundings and adjacent farms.
GM food is already legal in the European Union
The "no" vote by the overwhelming majority of EU states is unlikely to put a stop to the commission's efforts to have the Austrian and Hungarian bans quashed.
A commission spokeswoman said Monday that the EU executive "notes the vote of the member states," but would nonetheless push on with its effort to force Austria and Hungary to accept Monsanto's GM maize.
"We can't drop it," she said. "We are now in a position to either come forward with the same proposal, change the proposal -- but we need reasons to do so -- or change the procedure in and of itself.
"You can invoke the precaution principal, but you have to prove it at some point."
"No social value"
German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said after the vote Monday that it remained to be seen why the commission would continue its fight to have the GMO bans lifted.
Sigmar Gabriel says the commission has shown too much support for Monsanto
"I cannot imagine that a US government would be so engaged for a European company if its citizens were that much concerned, as the commission is engaged for an American company," he said.
"I can't see any increase in social value through the products of Monsanto," he said, adding that Monsanto's genetically modified seeds made farmers dependent on the company.
But European biotech association EuropaBio said the vote was a "political side-step." The group added that it was incomprehensible that some EU countries were ignoring scientific evidence on the safety of the two GM maize varieties.
Climate change aid
EU environment ministers also discussed Monday how to raise the billions of euros needed to help poorer countries deal with the adverse effects of climate change.
The ministers said however that it was too early to set an exact figure on the aid the EU would give poor nations in exchange for their help in fighting global warming.
Talks to find a successor pact to the Kyoto Protocol will be held in Copenhagen in December, but success in reaching a new environmental accord rests on convincing developing nations to help fight global warming, which they say has been caused by industrialized nations.
A recent version of a document detailing the EU's stance in global talks estimates that net global incremental investment in fighting climate change needs to increase to around 175 billion euros ($220.4 billion) by 2020, news agency Reuters reported Monday.
EU sources say that around 100 billion euros of that will need to be spent in developing countries.