By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union agreed a compromise on growing genetically modified crops on Thursday that gives nations the option to ban them, even if EU authorities have approved them for cultivation.
Environmental campaigners said the deal was an improvement on the current regime, but were concerned it would still make it easier to grow GM crops in Europe, while representatives of the GM industry also criticized the deal.
Widespread in the Americas and Asia, GM crops are rare in Europe, where they divide opinion, with opposition in many countries including France and Germany. Britain is in favor of them.
An earlier attempt to reach a compromise on GM cultivation failed in 2012, when EU ministers were unable to agree.
The new law, which needs a formal sign-off from the 28 member states and the European Parliament, gives nations the right to seek an opt-out if the European Commission grants approval for a GM crop.
Until now, any national bans for an EU-approved GM crops have tended to be subject to court challenges.
Representing the Green group in the European Parliament, food safety spokesperson Bart Staes said the deal was not robust enough and risked "finally opening the door to genetically-modified organisms across Europe, in spite of citizens' clear opposition."
Europabio, which represents the GM industry, issued a statement saying the deal sent "a negative signal for innovative industries" and denied farmers freedom of choice.
So far, EU authorities have approved only two GM crops for commercial cultivation, and one, a starchy potato, was later blocked by a court.
That leaves Monsanto's GM maize MON810 as the only GM crop grown in Europe, where it has been cultivated in Spain and Portugal for a decade.
A larger number of GM crops are approved for import, almost exclusively used as animal feed.
Representing Italy, which led negotiations as the current holder of EU presidency, Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti said the compromise was fair and balanced.
(Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier, Julia Fioretti and Francesco Guarascio; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and David Evans)