The EU proposal fails to require countries to ensure that any GM crops grown will not contaminate GM free farms, nor to ensure that the cost of any contamination will fall on the shoulders of the GM companies.
The European Parliament has just passed a law allowing the cultivation of GMO crops by EU member states, by 480 votes to 159, with 58 abstentions.
The proposed law allows individual member states to ban genetically modified crops, but only on very limited grounds that environmentalists fear could be subject to legal challenges.
The law also opens the door to the possibility of more varieties of GM crops being approved in the EU. Currently only one GM crop - a herbicide resistant strain of maize used for animal feed - is grown in Europe, but a further seven GM varieties are in the pipeline and may be approved early this year.
Green UK MEP Keith Taylor said: "This agreement is not all it seems. While giving EU countries new powers to ban GMOs, I believe what this will mean in reality for the UK is more GMOs not fewer. This is because our pro-GM Government are now able to give the go-ahead to more authorisations."
Wales and Scotland have welcomed the opportunity to confirm their non-GM position, but they may find that the limited terms of any opt-out may in fact force them to allow GM crops to be grown once approved by the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA.
Within the EU, Only Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic currently permit GM crop cultivation. The current UK government is committed to the introduction of GM crops after "a few years".
Safeguards stripped out
The European Parliament's Environment Committee voted last November to impose strong safeguards on GM crop cultivation, as reported on The Ecologist.
However the draft law then went to the 'Trilogue' - comprising the European Council, the Commission and representatives from the Parliament - for amendment.
An agreement was struck on 3rd December which stripped out most of the safeguards. While the form of national opt-outs remained, any such opt out would only be allowed under highly restricted circumstances.
Responding at the time, Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director said: "Environment ministers say they want to give countries the right to ban GM crop cultivation on their territory, but the text they have agreed does not give governments a legally solid right.
"It ties their hands by not allowing to use evidence of environmental harm to ban GM cultivation. This leaves those countries that want to say 'no' to GM crops exposed to legal attacks by the biotech industry."
The Green French MEP José Bové, also a campaigner against GM crops, added: "in the short term, this change will allow multinationals like Monsanto to challenge national bans at the WTO or, if free trade deals like TTIP are finalised, in arbitration tribunals."
But - with the exception of the Greens - all the main political groups in the European Parliament united today to back the GMO law.
Regulation devolved to member states
Among the problems in the new law is the absence of strict regulation at the European level. Instead it will be up to member states to impose their own safeguards and regulations.
GM Freeze Director Liz O'Neill explained: "This directive offers no meaningful protection to people who want to make informed choices about what they are eating or to farmers who want to protect their fields from the superweeds and biodiversity loss associated with the kind of GM crops likely to be heading our way.
"There are no EU-wide mandatory measures to prevent contamination within an individual member state and no rules governing liability. That means it's down to the UK Government to protect our right to grow and eat GM Free."
GM pollen from crops permitted in one country can easily spread to another neighbouring country. Add to that the largely unrestricted cross border trade in both foodstuffs and seeds, and GM trangenes are likely to spread widely across the EU once permitted in any one country.
Furthermore single market rules that govern EU trade will make it illegal for member states to control imports of GM foods, even if they forbid their cultivation.
Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association said the new law "fails to require countries to ensure that any GM crops grown will not contaminate GM free farms, nor to ensure that the cost of any contamination will fall on the shoulders of the GM companies who own the patented products, not on farmers or food businesses that suffer from pollution."
UK - a regulatory void?
As far as the UK is concerned. the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 election committed the Government to "develop a legally-binding protocol covering the separation of GM and non-GM material, including clear industry liability" - however this has not taken place.
A letter from farming minister Lord de Mauley recently stated that there was no problem with transgenes from GMO crops: "cross pollination is, again, a normal process between compatible plant species and there is nothing different about GM crops in this respect."
As reported on The Ecologist, the UK Government is proposing to introduce "pragmatic rules" to govern the separation of GM and non-GM plants and seeds - by implication, given the UK's supports for GMOs, "pragmatic" for farmers and the GMO industry, rather than for organic farmers or those that wish to remain GM-free.
Peter Melchett commented: "The rights of farmers who do not wish to grow GM crops, particularly in England are therefore under threat by this proposal. Indeed, the entire organic sector, growing rapidly in Europe and which may double by 2020, is in danger - as are the rights of anyone who wants to buy GM free foods."
Amid the chaos the law will create, at least one thing is cerrtain: that the situation will be exploited ruthlessly by the GM corporations to establish 'facts on the ground' and introduce GMOs as widely as possible with a minimum of regulation.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.