Amflora potatoes

BASF announced last week that it was moving its genetically modified plant-science headquarters from Germany to the United States. The chemical firm said widespread resistance to GM crops in Europe prompted the move, one which mirrors a decision the company made two decades ago when it opened a biotech research lab in Boston.

The company said it will relocate 123 jobs from Limburgerhof, Germany, and other European facilities to Raleigh, North Carolina. BASF was the last company still pursuing regulatory approval for GM crops in Europe, according to a Nature News Blog article. Though it won approval for its Amflora potato, it was the first time in a decade that a new GM plant was allowed to be grown in the European Union.

That BASF has elected to shift research and development in both transgenic plants and biotech to the United States should come as no surprise. There are strong sentiments in Germany against both technologies. “The anti-GM movement is in large part an offspring of the broader anti-biotech movement in the 1980s,” said Klaus Weber, an associate professor of management and organizations who has studied BASF and other German chemical and pharma firms.

While the German anti-biotech movement is still skeptical about the safety and benefits of medical biotechnology, it is more strongly opposed to applications in the agricultural sector, Weber said. Medical—or “red”—biotech had “undeniable medical and health benefits,” he noted, which made it harder to contest. Plus, the industry became highly regulated. Agricultural—or “green”—biotech, on the other hand, hasn’t had the benefit of perceived indispensability. Many early GM crops showed only incremental improvements over non-GM versions, and “industrial agriculture as a whole became suspect in the wake of major scandals, such as mad cow disease,” Weber said.

BASF’s pharmaceutical division stumbled when it moved from Germany to the U.S. in the early 1990s, but Weber doesn’t think the same problems will repeat themselves with the GM crop division. In the short term, the move will be expensive and disruptive, but the current global reach of the company’s R&D efforts, coupled with its partnerships with other firms like Monsanto, will insulate it from long-term problems. “I see this move as less problematic for BASF,” Weber said. “It is more of a problem for German research institutes that worked with them.”

Other firms have been closely watching the BASF case, Weber said, especially Bayer CropScience. While Bayer conducts much of its R&D on GM crops outside of Europe, it retains the division’s headquarters there much like BASF had. “As long as it is hard to get approval for outdoor tests and commercial scale permits in the EU, companies won’t invest a lot there,” he said. “The bigger question is whether BASF, Bayer, and others will keep their crop science units or sell them at some point.”

“My impression is also that BASF was acting not only on its own interest with the potato case, but also was trying to set a regulatory precedence for the industry as a whole. A lot of other companies were closely watching this case and there was certainly industry lobbying going on in support of the larger issue.”

That BASF decided to move its GM crop headquarters to the U.S. is a win for the anti-biotech movement in Europe, Weber said, “not just because of BASF, but because of the signal it sends to the entire industry.”

Further reading:

The Fall of German Biotech” on Kellogg Insight

Photo from BASF.

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