The European Commission proposed on Wednesday that governments approve only the third ever genetically modified crop for cultivation in Europe, but took steps to avert an expected backlash from France and other GMO opponents.
The proposal covers an insect-resistant maize developed jointly by DuPont and Dow Chemical which, if approved, would end Monsanto's current monopoly in Europe's tiny market for GMO crops.
The Commission said it was "duty bound" to make the proposal after Europe's second-highest court in September censured the EU executive for lengthy delays in the approval process, first launched back in 2001.
EU governments now have three months to vote on the issue. The plan is likely to face strong opposition from France, as well as Austria, Italy and other countries that have previously banned the growing of GMO crops.
But with Britain, Spain and Sweden expected to back the proposal, there may be little that opponents can do to prevent approval.
Under EU rules applying to the application, the Commission is obliged to approve cultivation unless a weighted majority of governments vote against it.
Seeking to head off criticism from anti-GMO governments and campaigners, the Commission called for the restart of stalled talks on draft EU rules to allow member states to decide individually whether to ban or restrict GMO cultivation.
That would enable countries to prevent farmers from growing GMO crops even if they had been approved for cultivation at EU level, provided they do not use environmental or health reasons to justify the restrictions.
EU health commissioner Tonio Borg said he hoped the draft legislation would be discussed at the next meeting of EU environment ministers in December, but EU officials said the issue was not currently on the meeting agenda.
Borg also hinted that Wednesday's move would not lead to a rush of similar cultivation approval proposals from the Commission, despite a backlog of six applications currently awaiting a decision.
"I know that this is a controversial subject, and that therefore one does not rush into areas where angels fear to tread," he told a news briefing in Brussels.
Only two GMO crops are currently approved for cultivation in the European Union. Monsanto's insect-resistant maize - known as MON810 - is the only one grown commercially, and was sown on around 130,000 hectares in 2012, mostly in Spain.
That compares with about 100 GMO varieties approved elsewhere in the world, with global cultivation estimated to cover some 170 million hectares in 2012.
The maize variety covered by Wednesday's proposal is known as 1507, and is sold outside Europe under the Herculex brand name. Like MON810, the plant has been modified to produce its own insecticide against the European corn borer.
If the product is approved it is unlikely to lead to an overall expansion in GMO cultivation in Europe but could challenge sales of MON810, particularly in Europe's biggest market Spain.
Since the cultivation request was first lodged in 2001, the EU's food safety watchdog EFSA has delivered six positive scientific safety assessments on 1507.
Environmental campaigners say the Commission has failed to fully address concerns over the impact of the insecticide-producing crop on butterflies and other pollinators, despite requiring companies selling the crop to monitor its impact on "non-target" insects.
"The Commission is ignoring very real concerns about the harmful impacts of GM maize 1507 on butterflies, which are essential pollinators, as well as the risks of cross-contamination of conventional and organic crops," said French anti-GMO campaigner and Green MEP Jose Bove.
In a separate decision on Wednesday, the Commission granted import approval for three GMO maize varieties for use in food and feed after EU governments failed to reach a decision.