By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - It is still too early to say whether commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) crops would have a positive economic or social effect in the European Union, the bloc's executive said in a report on Friday.
To date only seven EU countries have cultivated GM crops commercially, which the European Commission said explains the limited amount of relevant data on their socio-economic impact in Europe.
"Information principally provided by member states reveals that existing information is often statistically limited, and that it is frequently based on already preconceived ideas about GM cultivation," the Commission said in a statement.
Europe's limited experience suggests that farmers growing GM herbicide and pest-resistant crops could benefit from higher yields in areas where weed or pest pressure is high, the authors said.
But while there is a relatively clear picture of the economic impact for farmers of GM crop use, "available information on social impacts and effects along the food chain is rather limited."
EU biotechnology industry association EuropaBio -- which represents companies including Monsanto and Syngenta -- quoted data in the report showing GM maize had increased average yields in parts of Spain by 11.8 percent.
"There is no question that these crops are beneficial -- otherwise, why would 15.4 million farmers around the world continue to plant them?" said Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, EuropaBio's director for green biotechnology.
But environmentalists criticized the Commission's report for downplaying the potential cost of GM contamination in the EU food sector.
"The Commission's analysis fails to account for the true environmental and economic costs of GM crops," said Friends of the Earth food campaigner Mute Schimpf.
"The biotech industry must be held accountable for damage caused by contamination - the costs must not be unfairly pushed onto farmers, consumer and taxpayers," she said.
The Commission described the report as "a starting point for a deeper reflection on this sensitive topic," and said discussions should move away from the "polarized perceptions" documented in the report.
EU governments and lawmakers are currently debating proposals from the Commission to let national governments decide whether to grow or ban GM crops.
A spokesman for the Commission said whatever conclusions the EU reaches on the socio-economic impact of the technology, they would not become part of the EU's approval process for GM crops.
"From a purely legal point of view, socio-economic factors cannot be taken into account when approving GM crops. To be approved, they must simply be shown to be safe for human health and the environment," the spokesman said.
(Editing by James Jukwey)