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Europe’s plant-breeding skills are going west, south and east

Denis Murphy

BASF Plant Science has announced the relocation of its European plant biotechnology R&D operations to the US. This will involve closing major facilities in Germany and Sweden with the loss of 140 specialist positions. But what does this decision imply for plant research in Europe, and should we worry about the message that it sends to the rest of the world?

Since the days of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, European scientists have been at the forefront of both basic and applied plant biology. But while it remains a powerhouse in basic research, Europe is retreating from its hitherto dominant position in the applications of plant science. The decline began in the late 1980s, when many public research institutes were privatised or switched focus from applied breeding to more basic studies using model plant systems.

Coupled with public hostility to GM technology, this led to an exodus of plant-breeding companies from Europe and a severing of the link between basic discovery in publicly funded labs and its industrial applications.

European scientists still lead the world in many areas of basic plant science, but there is little doubt that the continent now lags behind in its capacity to translate discoveries to agriculture. The US still dominates many areas of basic and applied plant research and, in marked contrast to Europe, benefits from vigorous and well-integrated groupings of public and private R&D. This eases the journey from basic discoveries—such as the analysis of genomic datasets using massive automated arrays and other molecular technologies—to the manipulation of important traits in crops, such as drought tolerance and yield.

Europe is also being overhauled by powerful groups of well-resourced researchers in the rapidly growing economies of China, Brazil and India, as well as in smaller countries such as Malaysia and Thailand—indeed, these countries are even beginning to challenge US crop science’s global pre-eminence. Plant research here tends to be concentrated on staple crops and is more strongly linked with seed and agrochemical companies, and—of course—farmers.

These nations take a pragmatic approach to crop-related R&D, and will turn to the technology best suited to improving any given crop. GM is only one such technology, but if it is the best method it will be adopted. Examples include publicly funded laboratories developing GM soybeans in Brazil and GM oil palm varieties in Malaysia.

In much of the world, then, GM is regarded as just another piece of the modern plant breeder’s toolkit. In terms of its unpredictability, it is far less risky than widely used alternatives such as mutagenesis. The area of GM crops grown in countries such as Brazil, Argentina and China now equals that being grown in the US and Canada. Such developments show that GM technology is moving away from being owned and applied by US-based multinational companies to being a partnership between private industry and public institutions, one that is delivering both profit and the public good in developing countries around the world.

Seen in this light, the European opposition to GM technology seems increasingly parochial and irrelevant. Moreover, the basic advances that are still occurring in Europe, even those using conventional technologies, will increasingly be applied overseas for the benefit of local growers, rather than the European taxpayers who funded the work.

BASF’s departure is another step in a process destined to make Europe a backwater in applied plant breeding. This is a great shame because the skills and knowledge of talented European researchers could help their colleagues in developing countries meet the challenges of global food security and to mitigate the impact of climate change.

One suspects that even more European researchers will now join BASF overseas or retreat into basic research in the hope that somebody else might someday, somehow use their work to benefit humanity.

More worrying still, there is a danger that the European public may eventually decide that if basic plant science cannot be applied practically here, what is the point of funding it? In the future, funding agencies and research institutes in Europe must think beyond simply carrying out basic science, and strive to work more closely with private industry to deliver the fruits of this hard-won knowledge.

Denis Murphy is professor of biotechnology at the University of Glamorgan, UK, and an adviser to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Chemicals Agency.