Disgruntled GMO firms start pulling out of EU market

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Monsanto has announced it will scrap plans to sell an insect-resistant maize in France, the second move in a week by biotech company to retreat from the genetically modified foods market in Europe.

Monsanto's announcement on Tuesday (24 January) came a week after Germany's BASF said it would suspend the development of GM crops in Europe and move its plant science arm to the United States.

BASF's move is a particular blow for Europe, said Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, director of agricultural biotechnology at EuropaBio.

"The BASF decision is not good for Europe because I think it is the reaction of a quintessentially European company to what is a stifling political and regulatory environment,” said du Marchie Sarvaas, whose Brussels organisation represents agricultural technology companies.

“Research, jobs, money will go to where it is welcomed. In this case it will be somewhere else. It's a bad day for Europe."

Monsanto said it would not resume sales of MON810, a maize genetically modified to improve pest resistance, despite a French court ruling in November that overturned a 2008 government ban on the sale of MON810.

“Monsanto considers that favourable conditions for the sale of the MON810 in France in 2012 and beyond are not in place,” the St. Louis, Missouri-based company said in a statement.

'Lack of acceptance'

BASF’s decision to move its plant science headquarters from Limburgerhof, Germany, to Raleigh, North Carolina was an acknowledgement that GM plants are unpopular in the European Union.

“We are convinced that plant biotechnology is a key technology for the 21st century,” Stefan Marcinowski, a board member of BASF in charge of plant biotechnology, said in a statement on 16 January. “However, there is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe – from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians.

“Therefore, it does not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market.”

While widely accepted on the other side of the Atlantic, GM crops have long been a volatile issue in Europe. Public opinion surveys conducted by Eurobarometer and other polling agencies show a high level if distrust in GM crops in the EU.

Environmental and consumer groups have pressed for restrictions on imports of GM seeds and crops.

Adrian Bebb, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, welcomed the BASF decision last week.

“This is another nail in the coffin for genetically modified foods in Europe,” Bebb said. “No one wants to eat them and few farmers want to grow them. This is a good day for consumers and farmers and opens the door for the European Union to shift Europe to greener and more publicly acceptable farming."

In November, Greens in the European Parliament urged the European Commission to rethink its trade ties with Latin American nations that grow a large part of the protein plants used in animal feed in Europe, arguing that many of the imports are produced through genetically modified crops and are therefore making their way into the food chain.

Still, the opposition is not universal. Last year, MEPs voted overwhelmingly in support of plans to let national governments choose whether to ban the cultivation of GM crops on their territory amid resistance from some countries – including the Czech Republic and Spain – to EU-wide restrictions.

Yara, a Norwegian-based chemicals and agriculture products company, said in a statement that "sustainability has to be the guiding principle for all agricultural activity, and that agricultural R&D should be targeted to improve resource and nutrient efficiency as well as to improve the environmental performance of agriculture.

"So far GMO has played an insignificant part of the food security issue in the developing world. It still has to be proven whether GMOs have benefits when it comes to, for instance, water efficiency and nitrogen efficiency. However, we believe that genetic modification of crops is a scientific tool that may prove to be useful in solving future challenges if applied correctly." 

In July 2010, the European Commission adopted proposals overhauling the EU's policy on GM crop cultivation, hoping to draw a line under years of controversy regarding GMO approvals.

Under the proposal, EU member states would be able to ban GM crop cultivation on their territory.

The 2010 package included non-binding guidelines on co-existence between GM and non-GM crops, which replaced the 2003 Commission guidance on national co-existence measures.

According to the EU executive, the new guidelines on co-existence enable member states to adopt measures to avoid the unintended presence of GM plants in conventional and organic crops below the labelling threshold of 0.9%.

In July 2011 the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in support of plans to let member states choose whether to ban the cultivation of GM crops on their territory.

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