* Europe key market for North American soybeans
* GMOs are a focus of environmental campaigners
* Authorisation for feed, food use but not cultivation (Recasts throughout; adds ADM comment, analyst comment, Monsanto share prices)
By Karl Plume
CHICAGO, July 22 (Reuters) - The European Commission on Friday approved imports of Monsanto's Roundup Ready 2 Xtend genetically modified soybean variety, after months of delays that had derailed the U.S. seed giant's product launch this spring.
The decision now clears the way for widespread planting next season and removes a hurdle for North American farmers and grain traders, who have to keep close track of unapproved biotech traits that can disrupt trade. Top importer China approved the soybeans earlier this year.
U.S. grain trader and processor Archer Daniels Midland Co told Reuters on Friday its elevators and processing plants will now accept the Xtend soybean variety. Rivals Cargill Inc, Bunge Ltd and CHS Inc, which had also refused to accept the variety without EU import approval, could not be immediately reached for comment.
The EU is the second largest importer of soybeans and its approval is not expected to have a major impact on merger talks by German suitor Bayer AG, whose sweetened $64-billion buyout offer of Monsanto was rejected last week, as it had been widely anticipated, analysts said on Friday.
"It would have been a big deal if it hadn't been approved, but this was the expected outcome, although it took longer than anyone thought," said Bernstein analyst Jonas Oxgaard.
Still, the approval marks a key victory for Monsanto in the wake of months of regulatory delays over this launch, and swirling controversy over whether glyphosate, the chemical in its popular Roundup herbicide, is carcinogenic.
Monsanto expects Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans, designed to tolerate applications of glyphosate and dicamba weed killers, to be planted on 15 million acres next spring and 55 million acres by 2019. The company is still waiting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to approve dicamba use on crops.
The European Commission also approved a Bayer CropScience soybean variety. The EU executive branch took action after EU member states failed to reach an agreement on whether to licence them.
The approval will allow these GMO soybeans to be used in food or animal feed, but not for planting within the EU.
"Any products produced from these GMOs will be subject to the EU's strict labelling and traceability rules," the European Commission said in a statement.
The EU imports tens of million tonnes of GMO crops and products every year for use in animal feed.
The authorisations, which cover Monsanto's soybean MON 87708 x MON 89788 and soybean MON 87705 x MON 89788 and soybean FG 72 of Bayer's CropScience division, will be valid for 10 years.
Monsanto shares were little changed on Friday at $106.07. (Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels and Karl Plume in Chicago; editing by Jane Merriman, P.J. Huffstutter and Bernard Orr)