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24-April-2008 BusinessWorld

LIMBURGERHOF, GERMANY — German chemical giant BASF is cranking up pressure on the European Commission to get its green light for a genetically modified potato, a world first the company has decided deserves a few pages of advertising.

It wrote an open letter to the European Union’s (EU) executive branch and bought newspaper pages to present its case after a meeting with EU Environment Minister Stravos Dimas ended in failure last week.

BASF has grown increasingly irritated with the commission, which has not authorized genetically modified organisms (GMOs) since 1998, and is pushing hard for a patent on its potato.

"It is safe and protects the environment," BASF board member Stefan Marcinowski claimed in a letter printed in several major German dailies on Thursday.

He pressed Brussels to make a decision "without further delay" on a process that was launched in 2006.

In southwestern Germany, meanwhile, a tractor furrows soil amid apparently ordinary gardeners as they cultivate what BASF hopes will be a blockbuster crop.

"Take a look, it’s like any other potato, just a bit smaller," suggests a spokeswoman for Plant Science, a BASF unit specializing in biotechnologies.

She stood next to several rows that were planted in front of the group’s headquarters in Limburgerhof.

Dubbed Amflora and destined for the European market, the chemical company’s humble potato has been altered to bolster its content in amylopectine, a constituent of starch used in textiles, concrete and paper.

Residue of the potato crop was to be mixed into animal feed.

BASF wants to obtain the world’s first patent for its genetically modified potato.

Estimated gains along the entire production chain amount _100 million ($160 million) per year.

"But no one needs it," countered Jutta Jaksche, an expert who works with the consumer protection association Vzbv. "Consumers don’t want GMOs, and industry has other technical means to use starch," she added.

Ecologists opposed to GMOs cite the risk of cross pollenization of potatoes destined for human consumption, since Amflora resists antibiotics and could weaken the effects of medical treatments if edible potatoes were pollentated.

"And the BASF product is really old, the technique is obsolete," added Annemarie Volling, a coordinator for non-GMO agricultural zones in Germany who said Amflora was originally conceived 12 years ago.

"BASF just wants to make money and sell the world’s first transgenic potato."

To which the BASF spokeswoman replied: "We already eat seedless raisins... and no one says a word.

"At any rate, biotechnologies are a fact of life. The question is whether or not Europe will be a part of them."

BASF has pulled out all the stops. The world’s leading chemical group sells a wide range of agricultural products including fertilizers and pesticides and is involved in full-scale development of GMO projects.

At Plant Science’s farm, behind the rows of Amflora stand rows of greenhouses to which the public is admitted only amidst tight security measures.

Visitors remain on pathways and are instructed not to touch the plants, some of which are wrapped in mosquito netting to prevent pollen from escaping.

"That is rapeseed we are testing, it is bolstered by Omega 3 like that you find in fish," the spokeswoman said.

Elsewhere, rows of flower pots are also covered in netting and their contents identified with yellow plastic markers.

For about a year, BASF has collaborated with the US group Monsanto, at the epicenter of the GMO debate, to develop soja, cotton, rapeseed and corn.

The two groups hope to bring to market by 2012, once it overcomes popular resistance, a strain of corn that is resistant to drought. — AFP

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