The Fear Of Biotech In Europe

October (and fall) have arrived: A time when thoughts turn to multi-colored leaves, crop harvests and scary stories tied to Halloween. Of course, if you really want to see fear at work in person, just schedule a visit to the Old World.

Now I don’t get over to Europe all that often (about once every three to five years), but I’ve heard about how fearful Europeans are of biotechnology. However, I didn’t really appreciate the extent of this fear until I witnessed it first-hand at a BASF Press Event, held near the company’s headquarters in central Germany. During this event, one BASF representative was talking about the company’s Limus technology, designed to increase the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizers available for crops in the soil. Expected to hit the market in the next decade or so, Limus will rely on introduced soil organisms to accomplish this task.

Of course, the use of the word “organisms” led to the following question from one European journalist: “Are these organisms genetically modified?” The answer back was a definitive “no,” with the BASF spokesperson pointing out the Limus organisms are akin to beneficial nematodes, but the European journalist who asked the question still looked nervous afterward.

[Poll: Do you think Europeans will ever accept biotechnology?]

Later during the event, I talked with Markus Heldt, president of BASF’s Crop Protection division, about this incident and the general attitude Europeans have toward biotechnology. “It’s sad, but very real over here,” said Heldt. “And most of this fear is based upon a perception of danger and not any real scientific data.”

When I asked how European growers felt about this fear, Heldt was philosophical. “They are being put at a disadvantage in their production ability compared with their U.S. and South American counterparts who have access to biotech crops, but they recognize that the way things are with European consumers, there’s nothing they can do about it.”

So as the world’s population heads toward nine billion in the next few decades, Europeans will continue to avoid using some of the cropping techniques that can help feed these numbers because of perceived fears. That’s the scariest, and saddest, story I’ve heard in many an October.

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