January 16, 2012 5:46 pm

An end to GM crop development for Europe

BASF, the German chemical giant, is to pull out of genetically modified plant development in Europe and relocate it to the US, where political and consumer resistance to GM crops is not so entrenched.

The headquarters of BASF Plant Science will move from Limburgerhof in south-west Germany to Raleigh, North Carolina, and two smaller sites in Germany and Sweden will close. The company will transfer some GM crop development to the US but stop work on crops targeted at the European market – four varieties of potato and one of wheat.

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The decision, which involves the net loss of 140 highly skilled jobs in Europe, also signals the end of GM crop development for European farmers. Bayer, BASF’s German competitor, is working on GM cotton and rice in Ghent, Belgium – but not for European markets.

“There can be no doubt that the stifling and at times dysfunctional regulatory and political environment for agricultural biotechnology in Europe has played a major role in this loss of jobs and competences,” said Nathalie Moll, secretary-general of EuropaBio, the biotech trade association in Brussels.

“Decisions to stop innovating for and in Europe are a loss not only for one company, but for Europe as a whole and stand in stark contrast with the rapid adoption of this technology elsewhere in the world,” she added.

Plant scientists Europewide lamented BASF’s announcement. “The psychological damage is that it will tell the next young people who might want to go into plant science that they can’t bring anything exciting to market,” said Professor Jonathan Jones, a senior researcher at The Sainsbury Lab in Norwich, UK. “And it also discourages government support if [GM technology] is not going to be deployed in Europe.”

Some environmental campaigners welcomed the decision, however. “This is another nail in the coffin for genetically modified foods in Europe,” said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth.

BASF battled for some 13 years before the European Union approved in 2010 cultivation of its Amflora potato, which was intended to provide high-quality starch for industrial customers. However, German test sites had to be put under constant guard and activists still succeeded in destroying potato fields.

Although some observers hailed the Amflora approval as a turning point, a subsequent European commission proposal to give member states greater leeway to decide for themselves about GM crops has failed to break the long-standing deadlock.

José Manuel Barroso, the commission president, has repeatedly talked of the need to take a more “science-based” approach to draft such policies, and transferred the GM dossier from an unfriendly environment commissioner to the more receptive hands of consumer affairs.

But BASF was not prepared to wait any longer for a change in sentiment. “There is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe – [by] the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians,” said Stefan Marcinowski, board member in change of plant biotechnology. “Therefore, it does not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market.”

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