Hot potatoes! BASF drops GM spud plans in EU

Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent
@mattmcgrathbbcon Twitter

image copyrightSPL
image captionThe genetically modified potato project gained approval at EU level but was a commercial failure

The ever changing story of Europe's relationship with biotechnology took another twist recently when the giant German chemical firm BASF announced it was halting the development of all its GM potato varieties in Europe.

The company was approved to grow a commercial GM potato called Amflora in 2010. This variety had been modified to produce more of a type of starch that is useful for papermaking and other industrial processes.

But from the start, Amflora potatoes struggled to gain market share and just a year after getting the green light, they were only being grown on a two-hectare site in Germany.

A year ago, BASF said it was moving its biotech headquarters to North Carolina and halting the commercialisation of GM products for the European market.

Spud you like?

The company had also been seeking approval for three other GM varieties, but it has now taken the decision to walk away from Europe altogether.

According to BASF's Jennifer Moore-Braun, it wasn't just the lack of enthusiasm among European consumers and farmers - it was the lack of political support, with no sign of that changing.

image copyrightSPL
image captionGM maize is now the only crop approved for use in the EU

"No-one from the political side supported it. There were no signals from the European Commission that any change was likely," she told BBC News.

And it is fair to say that the BASF move comes at the same time when there appears to be confusion in Europe about what the Commission is going to do about the issue.

Several recent reports indicated that the new EU health commissioner, Tonio Borg, might seek a freeze on the approval of new GM crops until at least 2014.

But that doesn't appear to be the case.

What Mr Borg seems to be trying to do is actually clarify and possibly liberalise the regulations on growing GM across the EU bloc.

Apart from the BASF potato, there is only one other GM crop approved for commercial growing in the EU - a strain of maize developed by Monsanto called MON810.

That is because the EU's strenuous approval process has given new meaning to the phrase "slow food" - it took 13 years to get the go-ahead for Amflora.

Blocking Borg

The current rules mean that any crop that's approved at EU level can be grown anywhere in the Union unless countries have specific scientific reasons for blocking it.

At present, eight countries - Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg and Poland - have used this provision to stop the technology.

Mr Borg now hopes to drive forward rules that would shorten the approval process by giving individual countries the right to approve or ban GM varieties.

But the three most important words in the EU could stall the Borg initiative. France, Germany and Britain.

These countries see the plan as a breach of the single market and that for them is more important than GM.

Pete Riley from campaign group GM Freeze says the Commission is under pressure from the US and the World Trade Organisation to lift the ban on the technology.

"The EU Commission is a one trick pony, it is GM, GM, GM," he says. "It is safe to say they are frustrated the member states don't share that vision," he added.

GM spuds may now be off the menu, but the underlying issue is likely to run and run.

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