THE SCOTTISH government will this week make an unprecedented intervention in Brussels to try to help ban genetically modified (GM) crops throughout Europe.
The environment minister, Michael Russell, is planning to back a controversial bid by the European environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, to block applications by three multinational companies to grow GM maize.
The move is likely to heighten tensions with Westminster, which has been increasingly irritated by Holyrood's anti-GM stance. It will also annoy the GM industry - but delight environmentalists who want to see Europe remain GM-free.
There has been an effective moratorium on GM crops in the European Union, with none approved for cultivation since 1998. This has sparked fierce conflict with the US, which regards the ban as a breach of free trade rules.
Now Syngenta, Dupont and Dow, three of the world's most powerful agricultural companies, are seeking permission for two types of GM maize: Bt-11 and 1507. They had expected their applications to be approved by European commissioners, most of whom are thought to favour GM crops, including UK trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.
But in October, Dimas revealed he was opposing the applications because the damage the crops could do to the environment was 'irreversible' and 'unacceptable'. There was evidence of potential harm to butterflies, food chains and water life, he said.
Since then, commissioners have been unable to agree on the applications, with a decision being postponed twice. Meanwhile, anti-GM groups across Europe have mounted a major campaign in support of Dimas, asking governments to publicly back him.
That is the call to which the Scottish Nationalist government is now going to respond. 'We think that the commissioner's stance is worthy of support,' Russell told the Sunday Herald.
'The Scottish government is profoundly opposed to the cultivation of GM crops in Scotland.'
According to Russell, the precautionary principle should apply. 'We don't know enough about the risks,' he said. 'Scotland's reputation is based on having a clean and clear environment. This reputation would be sullied if GM crops were grown here.'
Russell is planning to write to Dimas this week, offering him the backing of the Scottish government. This will not please the London government, which is more supportive of GM crops.
But it was warmly welcomed by environmentalists yesterday. 'This is excellent news,' said Pete Riley, campaign director of umbrella group GM Freeze.
'It's good to see the Scottish government lining up to keep Scotland GM-free and to support moves to keep Europe GM-free. It will give encouragement to the millions of consumers and farmers across Europe who have serious misgivings about GM crops.'
Green MSP Robin Harper said Greens across Europe were delighted at the stand being taken by Dimas. 'GM food is not wanted and not needed,' he said.
'The agribusiness multinationals must not be allowed to use their allies on the commission, like Peter Mandelson, to overturn this. We fully support the minister's stance.'
The GM industry was less happy. 'This seems a little superficial,' said Nathalie Moll, executive director of Europabio, which represents more than 80 GM companies in Europe.
She argued that Dimas was breaching EU procedures by ignoring the all-clear given to the GM maize crops by the European Food Safety Authority. 'If his proposal goes ahead, it will set a precedent for other commissioners not to respect the approved procedures,' she said.
GM food should be a matter of choice, Moll argued. 'It should be on the shelves so that consumers have freedom of choice. I don't think governments should deprive them of that.'