AFP - The European Commission on Tuesday approved the cultivation of genetically-modified potatoes, prompting an angry response from environmental campaign groups and two EU member governments.
Austria said it was planning an immediate ban on the potatoes' cultivation, while Italy's agriculture minister slammed the commission's decision and vowed to defend "traditional agriculture and citizens' health".
The first approval of genetically modified foods in Europe for 12 years was criticised by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as a threat to human health, though the Amflora potatoes developed by German chemical giant BASF will not be for human consumption.
A spokeswoman for Austria's health ministry told AFP: "(Health) Minister Alois Stoeger is preparing a document banning the cultivation of genetically-modified potatoes."
The minister was going to "immediately issue a national cultivation ban," according to the ministry.
The EU Commission also allowed three GM maize products to be placed on the European market, though not grown in Europe.
Modified vegetables and cereals have long been a matter of fierce debate in Europe and the commission stressed that the Amflora would only be for "industrial use" including animal feed.
Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia said he opposed the Commission's ruling.
"Not only are we against this decision, but we want to underscore that we will not allow the questioning of member states' sovereignty on this matter. On our part, we will continue to defend and safeguard traditional agriculture and citizens' health," he said.
Before the potato, only MON 810, a strain of genetically modified maize made by Monsanto, has been authorised for cultivation in Europe since 1998.
The EU Commission said its latest decision was "based on a considerable volume of sound science" and stressed the GM potatoes would be cultivated at a distance from ordinary crops.
"Responsible innovation will be my guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies," EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli said.
"After an extensive and thorough review of the five pending GM files, it became clear to me that there were no new scientific issues that merited further assessment," he added.
The EU's food safety agency has said the Amflora potato, designed to produce industrial starch for use in areas such as paper making, is safe for all uses.
But the potato contains a marker gene which is resistant to antibiotics, fuelling fears over the risks of contamination for conventional varieties.
Greenpeace said Dalli's decision flew in the face of science, public opinion and EU law.
"It is shocking that one of the Commission’s first official acts is to authorise a GM crop that puts the environment and public health at risk," Greenpeace spokesman Marco Contiero said.
Friends of the Earth said there was no guarantee the antibiotic-resistant element would not enter the good chain.
"The new commissioner whose job is to protect consumers has in one of his first decisions ignored public opinion and safety concerns to please the world’s biggest chemical company," said spokeswoman Heike Moldenhauer.
BASF, on its website, said it was "delighted" by the decision "after waiting for more than 13 years," for EU approval.
"We hope, that this decision is a milestone for further innovative products that will promote a competitive and sustainable agriculture in Europe," said board member Stefan Marcinowski.