A plan to make it more likely that GM crops are grown across Europe has been rejected by EU ministers - despite UK support for the idea.
GM crops are widely opposed in opinion polls
The UK government backed a European Commission proposal to overturn blanket bans of GM crops in five EU countries.
The UK says it is acting on scientific advice and argues the crops should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
But Friends of the Earth said it was "appalling" that ministers wanted to stop other nations refusing GM crops.
France, Germany, Greece, Austria and Luxembourg have banned specific genetically modified crops on their territory, focusing on three types of maize and two types of rape seed.
At a summit of environment ministers on Friday, the European Commission tried to push through an order to lift the bans within 20 days.
But the move was rejected, despite the UK earlier saying it would back the move.
UK Environment Minister Elliot Morley told BBC Radio 4's Farming Today: "We'll vote on the basis of the scientific advice that we've received.
"And they are all saying that as there has been no new evidence brought forward to defend the argument for a blanket ban, there is no reason not to support the commission."
Mr Morley acknowledged there was widespread public opposition to GM crops which could not be ignored.
"But on the other hand we cannot deviate from the scientific advice because otherwise we do leave ourselves open to pressure from commercial companies, for example, and we are not going to bow to that," he said.
Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner Emily Diamand said the vote showed common sense and was a victory for consumers, who were "overwhelmingly opposed" to GM foods.
"But the actions of the UK today have been appalling," she said.
"It is bad enough that Elliot Morley should ignore public opinion on this important issue. But it is outrageous that he should try and 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."
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says it does not expect GM crops to be grown commercially in the UK until at least 2008.
It says each crop should be examined individually rather than using blanket approvals or blanket bans.
Friday's vote is the first time a commission proposal on GM crops has been defeated through qualified majority voting among ministers.
EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said the commission had a legal duty to ensure regulations were correctly applied by EU members.
"What is certain is that today's vote sends a political signal that member states may want to revisit some aspects of the existing system," he said.