The European Commission set a new benchmark yesterday in the controversy over genetically modified food by refusing to allow a local ban on GM crops in Austria.
Upper Austria had applied for the ban, arguing that local farmers wanted to protect organic and traditional agricultural production and to avoid the risk of cross-fertilisation between GM and non-GM plants.
But in a ruling which could have implications for the whole of Europe, the EU executive said that EU law only allowed such a move if there was new scientific evidence or a specific justification by the place involved.
Similar applications by local authorities in England to create GM-free zones are just about to be made.
However, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth said last night that it was confident an equally effective ban could be imposed by appealing against individual licences rather than forcing through a country-wide ruling.
"Upper Austria was attempting to achieve a blanket ban," a Friends of the Earth spokesman said. "We believe that we can achieve a ban by making prohibition orders on each crop.
"However, this decision by the EU could potentially erode the rights of people who would like to choose not to grow or eat GM food."
Margot Willstrom, the EU environment commissioner, said after yesterdays announcement: "I have, of course, full respect for the concerns of the Austrian authorities for the protection of the environment and human health.
"However, I would like to point out that these are common concerns, shared by many regions across Europe, for which it is possible to find a viable response within the existing legal framework."
The Upper Austria case, which claimed to produce new scientific evidence, was brought in March this year, seeking a three-year ban on genetically modified organisms in the province.