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BASF abandons GM crop market in Europe

The German chemical giant BASF is moving its transgenic plant operations from Europe to the United States, it says, because of widespread opposition to the technology.

The company announced on 16 January that it would move its plant-science headquarters from Limburgerhof, Germany, to Raleigh, North Carolina, and that it would no longer develop plants solely for cultivation in Europe. The division employs 157 people in Limburgerhof, plus another 63 at facilities elsewhere in Europe. BASF said that it would relocate 123 of those jobs to the North Carolina facility.

In statement, Stefan Marcinowski, a member of the BASF board of executive directors, cited “a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe — from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians.” The company instead plans to focus on plant biotechnology markets in the Americas and Asia.

In 2010 BASF secured European Commission approval to grow a genetically modified potato in the European Union (see A new dawn for transgenic crops in Europe?), the first such approval in more than a decade. The company marketed the potato under the name Amflora, and it was engineered to produce high levels of starch and intended for industrial use and not food.

Only one other genetically modified (GM) crop, a breed of maize (corn) developed by Monsanto that produces the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insect toxin, is approved for cultivation in Europe. However, Monsanto has long stopped developing GM crops to grow in Europe, and BASF had been the only company still pursuing approval on the continent, says Jonathan Jones, a project leader at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK.

After the approval, which was supported by European Food Safety Authority, some EU countries announced they would refuse to allow the crop to be grown. In 2010, the European Commission proposed allowing individual countries to decide whether or not to grow GM crops (see Fears over Europe’s GM crop plan). But the proposal stoked protests among industry officials, farmers and anti-GM campaigners and, says Jones, seems to be “dead in the water.”

“It’s a sign that Europe is not open for business in this area,” Jones says of BASF’s move. “Psychologically it’s damaging, because it’s going to deter future recruitment and future government investment. Governments aren’t going to continue to fund this area if there’s no prospect of commercial deployment in Europe.”

In a statement sent to reporters, Denis Murphy, at the University of Glamorgan, UK, said: “Europe is now in danger of becoming a scientific backwater and will be unable to assist developing countries the address food insecurity. Several European scientists highlighted this very issue in 2010 [see 1 out of 27—European politicians score poorly in agbiotech in our sister publication Nature Biotechnology], and there is now a danger that we will lose, not only companies like BASF, but also academic researchers and students — as well as any influence that we have had previously in developing countries where we used to be major providers of assistance and expertise.”

BASF Plant Science will not close its smaller facilities in Ghent, Belgium and Berlin, and the company will continue its quest to secure regulatory approval to grow a blight-resistant potato in Europe.

Image of Amflora potato courtesy BASF


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