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GM deadlock drives research out of Europe

Slow progress on EU approval of genetically modified crops and a climate of hostile public reaction are prompting biotech companies to abandon Europe, Research Europe has learned.

Disagreement between member states means that just two products have been authorised for commercial cultivation in Europe since 1998, with some 20 products stuck in the approvals process. The latest effort to break this deadlock—the European Parliament’s vote on 5 July to allow individual member states to ban GM—is unlikely to be approved by European environment ministers, or work if it were, says the biotech lobby group, Europabio.

This frustration is driving companies abroad, warns the group’s director of green biotechnology, Carel Du Marchie Sarvaas.

“Have a look now compared with 10 years ago, look where all the research jobs [in this field] are,” he says. “Do you think anyone will spend money in Europe when there is this sort of climate?”

A survey of some of the world’s largest biotech firms appears to support this. German chemical firm BASF told Research Europe that its heads decided “some time ago” not to initiate any new projects that are focused exclusively on the European market.

Reports from news agency Bloomberg on 6 July say BASF may move its 700-researcher site at Limburgerhof, Germany, to the US—but this is something a company spokeswoman denies “at the current time”.

Meanwhile Swiss company Syngenta told Research Europe it has no GM products being grown in Europe, and it does all its GM R&D outside the region.

Monsanto’s head of corporate affairs Mark Buckingham also says the US-based biotech company no longer carries out GM research in Europe. Security costs to prevent vandalism of trials add another disincentive to doing applied research in Europe, he says. “So the trend continues to be leaning away from doing that [R&D and product development] in Europe, and focusing elsewhere.”

The European Parliament’s proposal, drafted by French liberal MEP Corinne Lepage, would allow national governments to ban or restrict GM products, already approved on environment and safety grounds by the European Food Safety Authority, for socio-economic or land-use reasons.

Green and liberal MEPs hope the move would provide protection against legal challenges from the US and World Trade Organization to any ban. The Commission hopes it would stop countries blocking authorisation Europe-wide if they retain the option to opt out.

But Du Marchie Sarvaas believes countries will not act in this way. “If you look at the behaviour of these countries…those who vote against do it because they don’t want any GM in Europe,” he says.

Meanwhile, UK, French and German ministers are also unlikely to pass a proposal that allows bans for reasons “not based on science”, he adds.