EU farm ministers failed Oct.14 to reach an accord on the labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients - a technology that campaigners warned is a "recipe for disaster."
The 15 ministers were unable to agree on a European Commission proposal that food containing more than 1 percent of GM products should be automatically labeled, diplomats said.
Sweden insisted on "zero tolerance" for GM products, Austria and Italy called for a tighter limit of 0.5 percent, while other countries such as France were in favor of the compromise level.
The European Union's Danish presidency had also proposed that individual EU states be allowed to authorize the sale of new GM products on their markets. But only four countries - Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Spain - backed this. The rest pushed for an EU-wide system governing the introduction of new GM seeds and ingredients, arguing for the unanimous consent of a panel of experts in the new European Food Safety Authority, the diplomats said.
The EU's food and consumer protection commissioner, David Byrne, called at the environment ministers' meeting for seven EU countries to lift their bans on new GM products.
The seven - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg - have kept the ban in place since 1999.
The commission argues that Europe risks falling behind the United States, where farmers have enthusiastically embraced GM crops.
But environmental campaigners say the EU could be playing with fire by allowing the so-called "Frankenstein" foods, and are fighting in particular against allowing GM crops to be sowed in the wild.
"Allowing GM-contaminated seed to be sold across Europe is a recipe for disaster," said Geert Ritsema, the GM campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe.
"It will pollute our food and countryside and remove consumer choice. If anything goes wrong with this new technology the potentially catastrophic consequences will be irreversible," Ritsema said. "Ministers must step in urgently to stop these plans becoming law."
EU environment ministers are also expected to take up the GM problem on Oct. 17.
Brussels has proposed limits at which seed batches containing GM products have to be labeled - 0.3 percent for oil-seed rape; 0.5 percent for tomatoes, beet, cotton, chicory, corn and potatoes; and 0.7 percent for soya beans.
The British Statutory Nature Conservation Agencies, an advisory body to the British government, warned in a report of the impact of GM crops on the environment.
It said GM seeds could lead to the creation of super-weeds which "may lead to farmers using more herbicides, potentially resulting in increased damage to biodiversity."
At the European Commission's suggested thresholds for GM seed labeling, "farmers could unknowingly sow many thousands of GM seeds in each field," the report said.
The agriculture ministers also discusses commission proposals to reform the EU's costly Common Agricultural Policy. Countries such as France, whose farmers stand to lose most from CAP reform, fiercely oppose the plans.
A shake-up of the policy, which critics say wastes food and money on a lavish scale, is seen as necessary to allow the EU to allow in 10 new member states in 2004.
The new members will be mostly poorer, farming-reliant economies in the former Soviet bloc.