By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is on course to approve cultivation of a new type of genetically modified maize for the first time in more than a decade, according to a draft proposal from the bloc's executive seen by Reuters.
The proposal was drawn up after Europe's second highest court last month blamed the European Commission for lengthy delays in the approval process for the insect-resistant maize, developed jointly by DuPont and Dow Chemical.
The Commission is expected to send the proposal to EU ministers next week for approval. Even if governments fail to decide, as is expected, the Commission will have the power to grant approval by the end of the year.
While it is unlikely that the crop would ever be widely grown in Europe, where GMO cultivation remains a tiny fraction of the global total, the proposal will face fierce opposition from environmental campaigners, skeptical consumers and some EU governments.
The move could also revive a stalled debate over draft EU legislation to allow individual governments to decide whether to ban cultivation of GMO crops that have been approved at EU level.
An EU approval request for maize variety 1507, sold outside Europe under the Herculex brand name, was first submitted in 2001. But a series of safety assessments carried out in response to objections from some countries delayed the process for more than a decade.
Last month's court ruling forced the Commission to act, a spokesman for the EU executive said, and according to the bloc's GMO legislation the next stage in the approval process is for EU ministers to take a vote.
The proposal is likely to face opposition from governments including France, Austria and Poland, while those in favor could include Britain, Spain and Sweden.
A spokesman for DuPont's seed unit Pioneer Hi-Bred, which is leading efforts to commercialize 1507, said the company had not decided whether to market the product in Europe if it is approved.
"The European Union has a legal obligation to itself, to its farmers and scientists and to its trade partners to follow the revised EU biotech legislation and support the approval of safe agricultural biotechnology products," Pioneer's European communications manager Jozsef Mate said in a statement.
Environmental campaigners said the EU had failed to address concerns over the impact of the insecticide-producing crop on butterflies and other pollinators, and urged the Commission not to formally adopt the proposal at a meeting next Wednesday.
"Blindly rubber-stamping this GM maize would be a reckless decision by the Commission, putting biotech companies ahead of public safety," said Marco Contiero of Greenpeace.
Repeated EU scientific assessments have revealed no safety concerns over the product, but under the approval decision drawn up by the Commission, companies marketing the crop in Europe would have to monitor its impact on butterflies and other "non-target" insects.
Only one other GMO crop is currently grown in Europe - another insect-resistant maize variety developed by Monsanto and approved in 1998. It is cultivated on about 100,000 hectares mainly in Spain, as well as Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia.
Seven EU countries have put in place emergency bans on growing the Monsanto variety: Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Luxembourg.
Outside Europe, GMOs are grown widely across North and South America and parts of Asia. GMO cultivation last year totaled 170 million hectares worldwide, the International Service for the Acquisitions of Agri-biotech Applications said.
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)