EUROPEAN growers will soon be able to benefit from non-genetically modified herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, according to a leading spray manufacturer.

BASF told the World Seed Congress, taking place in Berlin this week (May 24-26), it is investing €700 million (£470m) to expand its plant biotechnology program up to the year 2010.

The company said it possesses the largest portfolio of non-GMO herbicide-tolerant traits in the cultivars currently grown or under development.

Along with partner breeders, BASF‘s Clearfield Production System has developed a range of crops that are tolerant to a new imidazolinone family of total herbicides.

“We have started developing an oilseed rape for the European market and plan for it to be available in the next four years,” said European Clearfield project manager Volker Sthamer.

“We expect to introduce Clearfield sunflowers into most relevant EU countries in 2005/6.”

Under trials since 1992, the non-GM HT system is already commercially available in various crops around the world, including soft wheat and canola in Canada and the US, rice in Asia, corn in Eastern Europe and sunflowers in Spain.

“US and Canadian growers who don‘t want to grow Round-up ready crops find the Clearfield system a good alternative,” said Mr Sthamer.

Imazamox – a broad-spectrum herbicide, with good control of annual grasses and broad-leaved weeds – already has EU Annex 1 approval.

“We‘re currently looking for combination partners to improve its efficacy on perennial weeds,” said Mr Sthamer.

The herbicide is only cleared for use on Clearfield crops, that have been bred with a gene that makes them resistant to it.

“A durum wheat will be available in the next three years, but we‘re not planning to make a soft wheat available in Europe due to the competitive environment.”

Clearfield maize is available to some “higher technified” Eastern European growers, said Mr Sthamer, but plans to extend its use to the rest of Europe have been halted.

Further developments from its non-GMO plant breeding programme will bring forward health benefits and other traits, said Hans Kast, president and CEO of BASF Plant Science.

“Plant biotechnology is one of the most promising future technologies of the 21st century that opens new dimensions in the development and optimization of plants,” he said.

“In BASF, we develop plants that provide a healthier diet by means of improved constituents, that can grow under difficult conditions, and that produce substances that can otherwise only be generated by complicated chemical processes.”

This includes plants with a higher tolerance for drought, for example.

Other research priorities for the non-GM programme include developing plants with higher vitamin levels or omega-3 fatty acids that can prevent cardiovascular disease.