BASF calls for EU approval of biotech "hot potato"
By Jeremy Smith
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - German chemicals group BASF aims to secure European Union approval in the next few weeks for farmers to grow its genetically modified (GMO) potato in April, the first EU approval for GMO cultivation in a decade.
EU governments have not managed to agree on biotech foods and crops for many years and repeatedly clash on the issue. No new GMO crop has received an approval for growing since 1998.
The European Commission -- the EU's executive arm -- has authorized a series of GMO products for import since 2004, but only thanks to a legal procedure that gives it the legal power to issue a rubberstamp approval when EU states fail to agree.
GMO cultivation is far more controversial and the EU now stands on the brink of approving BASF's potato for growing, by that same legal procedure. The problem is, the EU's environment chief, in charge of the dossier, seems unwilling to approve it.
For BASF, that rubberstamp approval must come quickly if farmers are to be able to plant its potato for the 2008 harvest.
Normally, the Commission acts fairly quickly in such cases. But the company has been waiting since July, when EU ministers failed to agree either to approve or reject its application.
"We still look forward to approval next year in time for commercial cultivation," Hans Kast, president and CEO of BASF Plant Science, told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday.
"April is the time when we need to get it into the ground. Our farmers need to make up their minds soon after Christmas," he said. Potatoes are usually harvested in Europe in September or October.
Known as Amflora, the potato is engineered to yield high amounts of starch, eliminating the viscous gel-like substance amylose so it contains only one starch ingredient: amylopectin.
It is not intended for human consumption but rather for industrial use; for example, in the paper industry to make glossy magazine coatings, in textiles for yarn sizing and as an additive in adhesive or sprayable concrete.
The main markets for Amflora were likely to be France, Germany and the Netherlands, Kast said.
The biotech industry, which insists that its products are as safe as non-GMO equivalents, has long vented its frustration over what it sees as the EU's delay in approving GMOs, saying it loses time and money in not being allowed access to EU markets.
That frustration has been expressed in legal challenges, which have also encouraged the European Commission to re-examine its internal policy on biotech crops and foods.
The most famous example was when Argentina, Canada and the United States filed against the EU executive at the World Trade Organisation over the EU's de facto moratorium on new GMO authorizations, which ran for some six years and ended in 2004.
The WTO found that the EU's effective blockade on new GMO imports constituted "undue delay" and violated trade rules.
More recently, in May, Pioneer Hi-Bred International -- a subsidiary of DuPont Co -- filed a lawsuit against the Commission over its alleged delay in submitting the company's application for EU approval of its modified 1507 maize product.
Kast declined to be drawn over whether BASF might pursue a similar path if the Commission delayed further in authorizing the potato and effectively prevented a 2008 harvest of Amflora.
"If we don't get it (authorization) in time, we will review the situation," he said.
"It would be a tremendous loss to BASF and to farmers. And the starch industry is very competitive."
(Editing by Michael Roddy)