The biggest chemical company in the world, BASF, is moving to the US because Europeans don’t want its genetically engineered potatoes. Just days ago, the company announced its decision to move its main laboratory for the development of genetically engineered (GE) crops to the US.
BASF said the move was a business decision based on the acknowledgment of the market failure of BASF’s flagship crop, the antibiotic-resistant potato Amflora. After the enormous political and media coverage Amflora turned out to be a commercial flop!
Swedish Greenpeace protesters at a warehouse containing BASF's anti-biotic resistent genetically modified potato Amflora last year. Red faced company officials later admitted to planting their expermental and unauthorised GM potato Amedea in an Amflora field also in Sweden.
This is very good news for Europe. But why did BASF take this decision and what does it mean for the future of GE crops in Europe?
In its press release BASF stated it had decided to “halt the development and commercialisation of all [genetically modified] products that are targeted solely for cultivation in the European markets”. The short explanation for this move was for BASF to take advantage of the practically non-existent regulatory system for GE crops in the US, which would result in increased profits. But there is much more to it than that. It has been increasingly difficult for BASF to disregard the public opposition to GE crops. According to the latest official figures 70 percent of European citizens find GE crops ‘unnatural’ and 61 percent of them oppose the development of these crops. And let’s not forget that Greenpeace twice gathered one million signatures against GE crops and that several EU member states have banned the only two GE crops authorised for cultivation in Europe.
BASF itself acknowledged the power of the people when it said that the opposition is not only coming from Greenpeace activists opposing the commercialisation of GE crops but also from “the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians”. This contradicts the dozens of so-called ‘industry sources’ (often disguised as independent commentators) that often portray European farmers as desperately willing to plant GE seeds on their soil.
Regardless of this BASF said that the move from Europe is a natural development and that it will concentrate its work on the Americas and “the growth markets in Asia”. The growth markets in Asia? What growth markets? Could BASF be referring to the ground-breaking Indian decision to put a moratorium on the approval of the Bt Brinjal (eggplant) in 2010? Or the decision of the government of Thailand to keep their rice GE-free? Or could BASF even be referring to the Chinese government’s declaration to suspend until further notice any commercialisation of GE-rice?!
Clearly not. But the masterpiece of BASF’s media spin in their press release must be their distortion of terminology. They equate ‘biotechnology’ and ‘genetic engineering’. This is wrong. No-one in Europe, and certainly not Greenpeace, is against biotechnology. If we were we would be against producing beer. And let me say here Greenpeace is not against producing beer, nor any of the other biotechnologies that improve our lives. Greenpeace has only ever expressed very serious scientific concerns and flagged the many environmental, economic and political problems with GE crops. Greenpeace is not against ‘biotechnology’, we are against bad biotechnology like GE crops. There are several other plant biotechnologies available. Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) for instance, which is also known as Smart Breeding which is more effective, cheaper and less risky than GE.
Greenpeace supports Smart Breeding not only because it doesn’t pose the health and environmental risks of GE crops, but also because it is cheaper which makes it easier for public institutions to use it.
So where does all this leave us? BASF’s decision sends a strong signal once and hopefully for all that there is no market for GE crops in Europe. What we want to see from now on is a substantial shift in the research and development agenda of Europe. Politicians, research institutions and private foundations must acknowledge the market failure of GE crops and start investing massively in solutions-based research, firstly in agro-ecology and secondly in advanced plant breeding using modern biotechnologies like Smart Breeding. The citizens want a GE-free Europe, the farmers want it, politicians want it and Greenpeace definitely wants it. Sorry BASF, no bad potatoes here!
Marco Contiero, EU Policy Director - Sustainable Agriculture & Genetic Engineering, Greenpeace European Unit & Lasse Bruun, Senior Campaigner - Sustainable Agriculture & Genetic Engineering, Greenpeace International