BRUSSELS, Belgium — The marketing of new genetically modified maize and rapeseed varieties from Monsanto Co., Novartis AG and AgrEvo Inc. came a step closer when a European Union (EU) scientific advisory panel gave a positive opinion on the products, which will be fed into an upcoming EU decision on whether the crops can be sold throughout the 15 member states.

"There is no evidence that the placing on the market of the three modified maize and the modified rape would cause adverse effects on human and animal health," the European Commission (EC) said in a statement last Thursday.

Next, the scientific panel's advice will have to be endorsed by EU countries' governments. Only then can the marketing be formally authorized; the member states are expected to consider the scientific panel's advice in four weeks.

Divided opinions in Europe on the merits of biotechnology-derived products have turned a spotlight on this decision. In some EU countries opposition is evident, notably in Austria — which in the absence of clear EU legislation has already adopted unilateral bans on the marketing of genetically modified organisms.

A determined stance by Austria and other reticent countries (Luxembourg also has adopted a prudent approach) could lead to real problems for the new products. Only if a weighted majority of EU member states (who have voting rights based on their size) backs the proposal, can the EC go ahead with the official approval.