In the week when BASF announce that they are moving their Plant Science headquarters from Germany to America, the Scientific Alliance looks at the influence of environmental activists.
This week BASF, German-based and the world’s largest chemical company, announced it was withdrawing from the development of genetically modified crops in Europe (BASF to concentrate plant biotechnology activities on main markets in North and South America
After a relatively late start in the field, it has built up a core competence which has resulted in the approval (after a long struggle) for the Amflora potato (containing high amylopectin starch for industrial use). The company has also been trialling a blight resistant potato which could have led to large reductions in fungicide spraying and significant cost reductions for farmers. But, because the European regulatory and business environment for crop biotechnology still seems so negative, the company has thrown in the towel and will transfer its key expertise to the USA.
In the short term, this looks like a sensible business decision; rather than continue to invest in a technology which had no apparent chance of being profitable in Europe for the foreseeable future, BASF has decided to concentrate on core businesses here while applying its biotechnology expertise in more welcoming markets. In the long term, this pretty much guarantees that European farmers and citizens and the EU economy will miss out on the benefits of a technology offering great benefits and few risks. And it reinforces the reputation of Europe as backward-looking and anti-science. The Luddite tendency has notched up another victory.
The company’s Plant Science headquarters will move from Limburgerhof in Germany to Raleigh, North Carolina, although some R&D will continue in Ghent and Berlin. One hundred and forty European jobs are to be lost. Not a large number, considering that the company employed over 109,000 at the end of 2010, but all of them part of a potentially high margin business with good growth potential.
Europe had a chance of being a leader in agricultural biotechnology. Some of the earliest plant transformations were done at the university of Ghent. Zeneca (whose plant science interests are now part of Syngenta) had significant research activities in the UK and was the first company to successfully introduce a GM product – tomato purée – to the market on this side of the Atlantic. Syngenta’s R&D in Europe is now all on crop protection products; all biotech work is done in North Carolina and China. Bayer CropScience, the other European-based agbiotech player, still does research in Ghent because of the expertise base there, but the focus of its biotech seeds business is in Kansas. These companies have all come up against sustained opposition from a number of environmentalist NGOs that have become self-appointed technology gatekeepers, holding the supposed dangers of genetic modification at bay.
In part, their opposition comes from a dislike of big business, and concerns that a handful of global companies might have too much domination of the entire food chain. Their focus is generally on biotechnology applied to field crops; other applications have generally raised fewer hackles. But the public sector and small companies can also be targeted, and criticism is directed at targets other than plants, as well. The Sainsbury Laboratory
at the John Innes Centre, one of the UK’s main centres of excellence in plant science, felt obliged to have a security fence around a small trial planting of blight-resistant GM potatoes in 2010 (and was the target of protests in 2011). And even Oxitec
, a spinout from the University of Oxford, commercialising (GM) sterilised insect pests as a way of minimising their numbers and reducing the burden of disease, has come in for strong recent attacks.
For Oxitec, the attack came from Friends of the Earth, GeneWatch and the Third World Network, and was based on research done five years ago which showed that the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline in their food led some sterile mosquitoes to regain their fertility. In fact, this laboratory experiment bears no relationship to the real-world situation, where tetracycline residues are much lower than necessary to cause this effect. But cherry-picking is a normal way of working for activists. The earlier Monarch butterfly saga
is a good case in point: larvae fed on artificially-high amounts of Bt maize pollen failed to thrive, but Monarch populations in practice show no correlation with the increasing acreage of the crop in their American summer feeding grounds.
Of course, it is right that people point out real or potential risks, and regulatory authorities indeed look exhaustively at the possible consequences of releasing GM organisms into the environment. But the approach of some NGOs appears to be to eliminate all risk. Rather than weigh up risks and benefits, they seem happy to deprive society of real benefits for the sake of avoiding all possible harm. This is an anti-science, anti-progress agenda, since everything in life – even those things essential for it – can be hazardous under some circumstances. The result is that not only has the regulatory system become slow and complex, but also approval decisions are made on a political basis, rather than being based on scientific evidence.
Although European farmers are unable to grow any GM crops other than Bt maize (approved in the 1990s, in the early stages of market development), the livestock industry imports millions of tonnes of herbicide-tolerant soy every year. Farmers and businesses in North and South America are the beneficiaries. Companies will continue to seek approval for imports of new GM crops grown across the Atlantic. International trade may be disrupted to some extent, but the European food chain will continue to be part of it. But, as new crop varieties come along, much of the benefit will flow to competitive economies; a decade ago, there was still a chance that EU economies would have shared in the growth.
One of the Commission’s current enthusiasms is for the creation of a ‘Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy’, with biological processes replacing chemistry, biomass replacing fossil fuels, and the research base keeping Europe competitive in world markets. But this is unlikely to happen if activist pressure comes to bear and policymakers respond by raising regulatory barriers. Stifling innovation in one sector could well have a deadening effect across other science-based industries. Anyone who believes in science and innovation should be prepared to counter the challenge of anti-science activists.
The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre