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BASF moving plant science HQ to RTP

1/23/2012

Published in The Herald-Sun on January 20, 2012

BY LAURA OLENIACZ

DURHAM – Citing resistance in Europe to genetically modified products that were in development, BASF announced this week plans to move its plant science headquarters from Germany to its offices in the Research Triangle Park.

BASF Plant Science, a subsidiary of the German chemical company BASF, “faced a lot of headwind” as it tried to go to market in Europe with its Amflora potato, said Jonathan Bryant, BASF Plant Science’s vice president of business management for the Americas and Asia.

The product was the first in a series of genetically engineered potatoes developed to produce starch for industrial uses, Bryant said. The product got an approval that allowed for its commercial cultivation from the European Commission in 2010, more than a decade after the company first applied. 

But company officials said they experienced protests in Europe, and also saw people digging up its field test materials. 

“We cannot withstand, or we will not stand (for), challenge to the safety of our employees,” Bryant said, adding that with some of the protests, there was “a touch of violence” to them as well.

According to Monday’s announcement, BASF Plant Science will halt commercialization of all products targeted solely for cultivation in Europe, including the Amflora potato. Bryant said the company does plan to complete the regulatory approval process in Europe for the second generation potato.

In addition, the company plans to cut 140 positions from Europe, and to transfer employees to other locations, mainly to its offices in the Research Triangle Park. The announcement said some positions will be retained at the headquarters site in Germany.

In the United States, Bryant said the company is able to perform its field trials in the United States “without interference.”

“(On the) consumer side, we continue to have very positive reactions to using this technology, people have a good trust in the regulatory system, and we have no problems to market GM food,” he added.

Channapatna S. Prakash, a professor of at Tuskegee University in Alabama and president of the nonprofit AgBioWorld, said there is likely to be more of an emotional response in Europe to genetically engineered crops. He said people in the United States may be more likely to believe regulatory agencies are doing a good job making sure products are safe. 

There are many genetically engineered products approved for commercialization in the United States, he said, and in food, he said they’re pervasive. Many food products contain corn or soybeans, he said, and many of those crops in the country are genetically modified.

“They are pervasive, they are everywhere, (for) the simple reason because corn, soybeans, literally – they make up American meals,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service website http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops/, U.S. farmers have widely adopted genetically engineered crops since their commercial introduction in 1996.

Soybeans and cotton have been the most widely adopted in terms of planted acreage, according to the service, followed by corn.

In North Carolina, the percentage of all genetically engineered varieties of upland cotton planted increased from 76 percent in 2000 to 96 percent last year, according to data from the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Jan Spears, a professor of crop science at N.C. State University, said that for the most part, farmers in North Carolina have embraced the technology. 

Genetically engineered crops can allow farmers to reduce the number of chemical sprays required to control insects, she said, which reduces the number of times farmers have to drive across the field to apply them.

“Which helps reduce the amount of crop damage, reduces the amount of fuel (used), and in turn, reduces exhaust that comes out,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons - for some, it’s been more convenient for them; it reduces the amount of time (they have) to manage pests, and allows them to spend more time managing other crops.”

Michael Roberts, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University, said a lot of fears are overblown in regard to consumer distrust of genetically modified crops. 

But he said there is a “real problem” in overuse of herbicide sprayed on crops genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide, which he said has led to weed resistance in the United States.

“If (farmers) were a little bit more careful in the way they managed use, if they didn’t spray everything, (they) probably could have maintained effectiveness for a longer period of time,” he said. “They were warned. Lots of crop scientists warned them.”

Prakash said resistance is a valid concern, but he also said there are strategies that can mitigate the impacts.

“It’s almost like, if you use the same knife to cut the food, it’s going to get blunt one day,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the knife anymore.”

Bryant said it takes about 15 years to take a genetically engineered crop to commercialization. The BASF Plant Science division is now at a late-stage development, early commercialization phase, he said, with no products on the market yet.

The Amflora potato was the first product that BASF Plant Science had won approval for, Bryant said. The project was part of a seed partnership that the company had acquired.

He said the “first and most important” technology that BASF Plant Science is working on is a drought tolerant corn product developed in partnership with another company, Monsanto.

According to Monday’s announcement, the product was approved for cultivation at the end of 2011 and was the first to get the approval from its partnership with Monsanto.

With the changes, Bryant said the park offices will grow by about 60 positions due the recent announcement, and others will be added due to natural growth. He said around 100 people will be added due to transfers or natural growth.

“We had a location here, it was a very successful location, and we decided to additionally build our plant science group here,” he said.