By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union ministers hit deadlock on Tuesday on whether to let a new strain of genetically modified (GM) maize be grown on EU soil for human consumption, clearing the way for the bloc's executive arm to approve the crop automatically.
European Commission endorsement of insect-resistant Pioneer 1507, developed jointly by DuPont and Dow Chemical, would end a decade-long debate and break Monsanto's monopoly in Europe's small market for GMO crops.
Although widely grown in the Americas and Asia, GM crops are generally unpopular in Europe, where public opposition is strong and environmentalists have raised concerns about the impact on biodiversity.
On Tuesday, ministers and diplomats from 19 of the 28 EU countries opposed approval, but under the bloc's weighted voting system, that was not enough to reject the crop.
Instead, the Commission is now legally obliged to approve it, European Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said. He said he could not specify when, although EU rules state the Commission must decide "without undue delay".
He said extensive research had shown the crop, whose developers first applied for authorization in 2001, was safe.
DuPont Pioneer said in a statement that the EU had "a legal obligation to itself, to its farmers and scientists and to its trade partners" to support the approval of safe new agricultural products.
EU authorities have only ever approved two other GMO crops for commercial cultivation: a maize type and a potato. The potato was later blocked by a court.
Of the most prominent member states, France has vehemently opposed the new GM maize. Britain has backed it, arguing that Europe risked becoming "the museum of world farming".
France warned the EU was in danger of stoking euroskepticism ahead of European Parliament elections in May by granting approval, based on arcane legal rules, in the face of staunch opposition.
"For us it's an incomprehensible decision because the majority of EU member states do not want genetically modified maize," Thierry Repentin, France's Europe minister, said.
Greenpeace's EU agriculture policy director, Marco Contiero, said: "Approval by the Commission would be irresponsible because of the environmental risk, untenable because of widespread political and public opposition, and legally compromised because the Commission has forced it through without the required consultation."
Speaking in support of the new maize variety, Spain said its farmers needed to be able to compete with those in non-EU nations that can grow GM produce, while Britain said there was a clear scientific case for GM crops.
With a view to accommodating all sides of the debate, Borg said the Commission would revive a separate proposal on GM cultivation that would allow individual member states to ban GM crops if they wished, while others could allow them.
Member states have in the past failed to agree on that proposal too, but Borg said he was "cautiously optimistic" countries could set aside their differences.
(Additional reporting by Nigel Hunt in London and Sybille de la Hamide in Paris Editing by Dale Hudson, Adrian Croft, Justyna Pawlak and David Evans)