2 November 2001

Starch potato tipped as the first biotech benefit

Biotechnology will

revolutionise farming to the

benefit of all, believes BASF.

Last week it held a press

briefing in Berlin to start

putting that message across.

Andrew Swallow reports

POTATOES with a modified starch content seem set to be the first farm release from a biotech pipeline packed with products for the future, says BASF.

Conventional varieties, including those bred specifically for the starch industry, contain amylose and amylopectin in roughly equal amounts, says head of BASF Plant Science, Hans Kast.

"But it is desirable for the [starch] industry that the potatoes produce either one or the other. You cannot do this with conventional breeding."

The firm has produced a transgenic variety producing almost pure amylopectin, with next to no amylose. Such a variety will cut processing costs but what advantage will growers get from growing it?

Plenty, says Dr Kast. "If contracts do not offer an improved return over other crops then the growers will not sign them."

And such is the volume of value-added product possibilities from plants produced by the biotech industry that in due course competition could drive contract prices offered to growers up, he says.

BASF has invested k700m setting up its biotechnology bases, three in Germany, two in the USA and one each in Canada and Sweden in the past three years. A further k700m will be invested within the next 10 years on three key areas of work: More efficient agriculture, better nutrition, and plants as green factories.

Pest, disease, drought, cold and salt tolerance traits are all being worked on. Such developments will be essential for food production to be sustainable in the face of a growing population. Without it ever-increasing swathes of previously uncultivated land will fall to the plough, warns Dr Kast.

What is more, increased oil, protein, starch or vitamin content will improve the nutritive value of foods grown. For example, enhanced vitamin A rice is already available.

Biotechnology also has the potential to create crop plants that will replace chemical factories for products such as plastics. Such developments will be a long time before they reach the field, he says.

But BASFs high amylopectin modified potatoes could be on the market in three years with pure amylose-producing varieties following soon afterwards, he says.

Combined with other companies developments, global sales of crops carrying traits introduced by biotechnology will be worth $20bn by the end of the decade, matching the traditional seed and agrochemical market combined, he predicts.

"We at BASF are determined to make the most of these [biotech] opportunities."

The humble spud seems set to be the first EU crop to benefit from a flood of biotech advances from BASF, says head of the plant science division, Hans Kast (above).

BASF BIOTECH BUSINESS

&#8226 k700m invested in three years.

&#8226 Biotech centres in Germany, USA, Canada & Sweden.

&#8226 Core goals: Agricultural efficiency, nutrition, and crops as factories.

&#8226 Modified starch potato first EU release?