Britain tried and failed yesterday to lift a five-year EU-wide moratorium on new genetically modified food products, in a move that attracted criticism from green groups.
Anxious for the EU to avert a trade war with the United States over the issue, British representatives voted in Brussels to back the Europe-wide sale of a variety of GM sweetcorn produced by the Anglo-Swiss firm Syngenta.
Had the UK carried the day, the product - known as Bt11 maize - would have been the first GM foodstuff to have been approved since 1998, when an EU-wide moratorium was imposed because of public unease about the technology.
But Britain did not muster enough support. Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland voted in favour but France, Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Austria and Portugal objected, while Germany, Italy and Belgium abstained.
Another vote on the issue - at ministerial as opposed to expert level - will be held in the first part of next year.
A government spokesman said the UK would vote in the same way. "We go for a science-based approach and we agree with the European commission that this food is as safe as normal food."
Syngenta wants to import the sweetcorn and sell it frozen, in cans, or as corn on the cob. It is on sale in the US, Canada, Australia and Switzerland, and EU scientists concluded it is "as safe for human food use as its conventional counterpart".
Green groups say GM food is risky and want the EU-wide moratorium on new GM products to stay in place.