By ROBERT WIELAARD
BRUSSELS -- The European Commission backed away from the debate over genetically modified foods July 13, proposing that the decision to grow such foods be left to each of the 27 European Union governments if scientists have no objections.
Governments "need more flexibility," EU Health Commissioner John Dalli said, to organize the cultivation of genetically modified crops -- often dismissively called "Frankenfoods" in Europe -- side-by-side with unaltered or organic crops.
In an about-face for the EU executive, he said the EU should step in only if genetically manipulated organisms pose a health or environmental danger.
To date, it has only allowed the growing of a GM maize type and a potato whose starch is used in paper production and the marketing of 30 GMOs -- varieties of sugar beets, soybeans, colza, cotton and maize for use in feed or food.
This case-by-case approach has done nothing to ease divisions over the pros and cons of GM products in the EU.
Six nations -- Austria, Hungary, France, Greece, Germany and Luxembourg -- have banned the cultivation of MON810, the GM maize of American food company Monsanto that the European Commission had approved.
Julie Girling, a member of the EU assembly's environment committee, said if scientists see no health hazard it was right for "national governments to decide if they want to bring GMO crops in. ... Any decision on whether to permit, tolerate or ban GMOs must be taken at individual national government level."
Others expressed disappointment.
Stefanie Hundsdorfer, a policy adviser at Greenpeace, the international environmental group, said the European Commission had failed repeatedly to overturn national bans against GM crops.
"Now (it) is admitting defeat by presenting a compromise deal," she said.
"In an attempt to muddle through ... it is offering countries national bans if they turn a blind eye to the health and safety concerns they have about new crops."
Friends of the Earth Europe said the EU was "opening Europe's fields to GM crops (and) continues to fail to protect Europe's food and feed from contamination by GM crops."
Avaaz.org -- an anti-GMO group -- said leaving GMO decisions with governments clashed with growing public concern about genetically modified foods.
"Over 700,000 citizens across Europe have already signed a petition calling for a moratorium on GM crops," said Ricken Patel, the group's director.
About 331 million acres across the globe is used to produce GMO crops. Almost half of this cultivation occurs in the U.S., where GM crop plants are grown on 153 million acres. Germany is the EU's largest GMO crop producer with 86 million acres.