INSIGHT: Europe takes biotech blow with BASF Plant Science move

17 January 2012 17:25  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--Europe’s scientific credibility was dealt a blow this week by BASF’s decision to move its plant biotechnology business and research base to the Americas.

The Germany-based company has tried for years to gain acceptance of and approval for genetically modified (GM) products in Europe, but has been trapped in the emotive and highly polarised debate on GM crops.

EU member states have remained divided on the issue, despite advocating a deepening of the European science base.

The European Parliament voted last year to allow individual member states to decide whether or where to approve GM crops.

BASF had been trying to bring to market its Amflora GM potato, but faced numerous obstacles to field trials.

Work on Amflora – which is a high-starch-yielding variety, developed for industrial starch production – and other varieties with newly introduced traits will be halted. But BASF will keep some of its options open by continuing the regulatory process in Europe for certain potato products.

“We are convinced that plant biotechnology is a key technology for the 21st century,” said Stefan Marcinowski, BASF executive board director responsible for plant biotechnology.

“However, there is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe – from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians. Therefore, it does not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market.”

BASF says it will concentrate its Plant Science activities in the main markets in North and South America. The headquarters of the business will move from Limburgerhof, Germany, to Raleigh in North Carolina, US. Research and development (R&D) work will be concentrated mainly in Raleigh, in Ghent, Belgium, and in Berlin, Germany.

“Development and commercialisation of all products targeted solely at cultivation in the European market will be halted,” the company stated.

Many Europeans have rejected genetic modification, while GM crops have found their way to market in the Americas.

The difficult and potentially even more fractured regulatory environment in Europe, simply for allowing field trials of GM plant varieties, has finally forced BASF’s hand.

Plant scientists are concerned that the link between their research and the products that might stem from it will become even more distant as BASF abandons the European market.

Many European citizens and European farmers, however, are keen to remain GM-free.

BASF rival Bayer, also headquartered in Germany, carries out plant biotechnology research in Europe, but not for crops to be grown on that continent.

BASF will close Plant Science sites in Germany and Sweden, and transfer positions from Germany mainly to Raleigh. It will, however, retain and strengthen its links to academia through its jointly held plant science research companies in Berlin and in Ghent.

The company will not give up on what it calls “an attractive gene discovery platform”. But the development and commercialisation of the GM starch potatoes Amflora, Amadea and Modena will be halted. Work on a potato resistant to late blight, called Fortuna, as well as a late-blight-resistant starch potato and a variety of wheat resistant to fungal disease will also be stopped.

Marco Contiero, EU agriculture policy director of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Greenpeace, said in a statement on Monday: “BASF admits that Europeans don’t want GM crops, and for good reason. It’s not just the worrying health concerns. GM crops go hand in glove with factory farming, pesticide use, pest resistance and disappointing long-term yields.”

His comments illustrate how emotive the GM crops issue has become.

BASF continues to work on products for markets in the Americas and on its collaboration with US-headquartered agricultural company Monsanto on yields and drought resistance for staples such as corn, soy, cotton, canola (rapeseed) and wheat. Drought-tolerant corn developed from the partnership was approved at the end of last year for cultivation in the US.

Soybeans developed with another firm were approved in 2009 for cultivation in Brazil. BASF says that the approval process for important export markets is ongoing.

The backlash against GM crops might be most noticeable in Europe, but Greenpeace suggests that the retreat is more widespread.

“BASF’s retreat to the Americas follows a string of defeats for the industry over the last two years in China, India, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere,” Contiero said. “Over 90% of GM food crops are grown in just four countries in the Americas.”

The NGO noted that India last year rejected the authorisation of a GM aubergine and China suspended the commercialisation of GM rice: “The Philippines and Thailand have also rejected GM rice.”

Read Paul Hodges’ Chemicals and the Economy blog

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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