The UK failed to persuade the rest of Europe to give in to American pressure and lift the ban on genetically modified crops and food yesterday.
Britain's Elliott Morley warned fellow environment ministers in Brussels that they were going against scientific advice and faced the threat of a trade war with the United States over the issue if the ban remained in place, but ministers voted overwhelmingly to continue with it.
The decision was also a blow for the European commission, which told ministers that there was no evidence on health or environmental grounds allowing a legal ban on the crops. The politicians clearly disagreed.
The bans on GM varieties of oil seed rape and maize, imposed on public safety and environmental grounds by Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, France and Greece, should have been backed by scientific evidence but none was produced before yesterday's meeting.
The group's objections were based on fears that genetically manipulated genes could escape into the wider environment and that non-target insects could be destroyed by crops with inbuilt insecticide.
Ministers from the five countries told the meeting that they simply did not accept that GM crops should be released, and the ban drew the backing of a sufficiently large majority of 25 member states to ensure that it remains in place.
In theory, because the bans cannot be legally justified, the commission could overturn them but is unlikely to do so because it fears an angry backlash from member countries and the public.
The United States claims that the bans are a barrier to trade and is making them the subject of a complaint to the World Trade Organisation, demanding sanctions. The WTO is expected to adjudicate in August.
Mr Morley, who was attacked by environmental groups for his stance, defended the UK's position after the meeting. He told the Guardian: "We are not an advocate for GM. We have always said we would deal with each case on its merits having first taken scientific advice.
"In this case all these crops had been approved individually by the commission on scientific advice and we felt bound to accept that. If any country had come forward with scientific information which showed that in their case, in their country, any individual crops should not be grown we would have listened to the evidence. None came forward with evidence."
Mr Morley said it was quite clear that ministers were reflecting the public concerns in their countries rather than re lying on science to inform their decisions. But he did not accept that this helped the American case at the WTO.
"Clearly Europe should be allow to take a precautionary approach to safeguard health and environment. That is not a restraint of trade," he said.
One of the most contentious issues at the meeting was a variety of Bt Maize produced by Monsanto called MON 863, which caused unexplained kidney damage to rats, according to research conducted by the manufacturer.
Monsanto has refused to release all the results of its own tests on the maize, although it has now been ordered to do so by a German court.
Mr Morley said that while he was concerned about the findings, British scientists who had seen the data had concluded that this one study was not sufficient grounds to ban the crop. As a result the government had again voted for it to be introduced.
Friends of the Earth's UK campaigner on the GM issue, Emily Diamand, said: "Today's vote is a vote for common sense, and a victory for European consumers, who are overwhelmingly opposed to GM food.
"The actions of the UK today have been appalling.
"It is bad enough that Elliot Morley should ignore public opinion on this important issue. But it is outrageous that he should try to prevent other countries saying no to GM.
"His actions will do nothing to improve the UK's battered reputation on this issue, or help its poor image in Europe."
- 183 Environment