By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
Five bitter years after the start of a national debate, UK ministers say GM crops can - on certain conditions - now be grown commercially in Britain.
The maize will face challenges
The Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, told Parliament ministers had agreed in principle to the growing of a single variety of GM maize in England.
Anti-GM campaign groups are vehement in denouncing the decision, while from the biotechnology industry there is relief.
But legal challenges, qualifications and scientific questions still remain.
Mrs Beckett told MPs the government would oppose the growing anywhere in the European Union of the two other GM crops involved in the recent tests, known as the farm-scale evaluations, beet and oilseed rape.
She said the GM maize licences would expire in October 2006, and any consent holders wishing to renew them would have to carry out scientific analysis during cultivation.
Replicating the test conditions
She said her approach was "precautionary" and "evidence-based". There was "no scientific case for a blanket approval for all uses of GM... and no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM."
Any commercial crops would have to be grown and managed as in the tests, or under conditions which would not harm the environment.
And Mrs Beckett said: "I do not in fact anticipate any commercial cultivation of GM maize before spring 2005 at the earliest."
But she acknowledged there were many "legitimate concerns about gene stacking, cross-pollination and much else".
Recognising the worries of organic farmers who say their crops will be damaged by GM contamination, she said: "I am also consulting stakeholders on options for providing compensation to non-GM farmers who suffer financial loss through no fault of their own.
"But I must make clear that any such compensation scheme would need to be funded by the GM sector itself, rather than by government or producers of non-GM crops.
"The government will also provide guidance to farmers interested in establishing voluntary GM-free zones in their areas, consistent with EU legislation."
The biotechnology industry strenuously opposes the idea that it should be responsible for paying compensation if something goes wrong.
The next step now is for the variety concerned, Chardon LL, to be placed on the UK Seed List (the national list of varieties).
It is a type of fodder maize which appeared to outperform conventional maize in the tests by allowing more wildlife to survive around it, although the result is contested.
The pesticide used on the conventional maize which was compared with the GM variety, atrazine, will be banned across the EU in 2006.
Anti-GM groups believe its replacement will cancel the apparent benefit of the GM variety in allowing more weeds to flourish.
Before any variety can be placed on the list, the devolved authorities in Scotland and Wales must give their agreement.
The Welsh Assembly voted unanimously in 2000 to keep Wales GM-free, and its environment minister says he will not approve the maize for the time being.
He said approval would have to wait until the issue of co-existence had been agreed.
But the Scottish Executive says GM maize can be grown there after the crop-growing regulations are amended. Scotland's deputy environment minister said there was "no green light for GM crops".
The government must also seek the approval of the Pesticides Safety Directorate for the chemical - glufosinate ammonium, marketed as Liberty - to be sprayed on the GM maize.
New dawn for GM crops: But arguments remain
The government will in any case have to advertise its intention to place Chardon LL on the seed list, allowing objectors to appeal.
None of this addresses the serious concerns many people feel about the farm tests themselves.
Four days ago the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee said approving GM commercialisation on the basis of the tests would be "irresponsible".
The Conservative agriculture spokesman, John Whittingdale MP, said: "It is an outrage that the government had decided to approve the growing of GM maize, before the committee unanimously recommended that this should not happen.
"The government has chosen to ignore its own consultation process which demonstrated that 90% of public opinion was against the growth of GM produce. Many people will want to know why."
Images courtesy of Monsanto.