Archive Article: 1999/01/30

30 January 1999

BASF is stepping up its biotechnology investment. It has bought 40% of Swedish plant breeders Svalöf Weibull, whose subsidiaries include Semundo, and canola seed companies in Canada.

This follows the formation of two joint ventures: Metanomics, to determine the function of the plant genotype; and SunGene, incorporating and testing new genes in plants, which were announced by BASF in October last year.

BASF is targeting its biotechnology towards products that give a direct benefit to the consumer as well as the farmer in order to gain public acceptance of GM crops.

According to Claus Illing, BASFs head of products for agriculture in Central Europe, herbicide and insect-resistant GM plants "are not attractive to BASF".

Sales of BASFs soybean herbicides in North America fell significantly last year because of the widespread use of GM herbicide resistant varieties.

Instead, BASF envisages the development of a portfolio of GM plants with improved nutritional attributes including higher oil content in oilseed rape, and more amino acids in forage crops. Dr Friedrich Vogel, head of BASFs crop protection division, says: "We are focusing on food qualities that bring health benefits, for example food low in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Not much research has been done in this area so we are in a competitive situation."

BASF now has 40% of Svalöf Weibulls share capital. The biotechnology sections of both companies will be merged to create BASF Plant Science. Olle Hakelius, chairman of Svenska Lantmännen Riksförbund, which owns Svalöf Weibull, says: "We needed to go into biotechnology and Svalöf Weibull was too small by itself."

Mr Hakelius says he is "very happy" for BASF to own 85% of BASF Plant Science and for Svalöf Weibull to hold 15%. Svalöf Weibull made a pre-tax loss of DM4.5bn in 1997, but expect profits in 1999.

It is likely to be at least five years before BASF Plant Sciences GM crops are brought to the market. The company hopes that by that time the public will not oppose GM crops, and that the issue of licences for GM plants will no longer be a problem. Seeds are likely to become more expensive, justified by increased performance giving more commercial value.

BASF are on the prowl for other acquisitions to complement their existing biotech base, but theyre not abandoning research on herbicides and fungicides.

Dr Vogel says that improved crop protection agents will be "indispensable aids in meeting the rising demand" as world population increases. The company aims to launch two new active ingredients each year worldwide.

BASF arent the only late arrivals in plant biotechnology: Dow Chemical are hoping that use of a technique developed by Mycogen, the biotechnology company they bought for $500m, and their research alliance with Rhône-Poulenc, will enable them to develop new crops at lower cost than has been achieved by older biotechs.

APPROVAL for Falcon (propaquizafop) the graminicide used in broad-leaved crops, certain field vegetables and forestry is passing to Novartis at the end of January. The label remains unchanged under Novartis ownership; Falcon controls a wide range of grass weeds including volunteer cereals, blackgrass, wild oats, annual meadow grass in oilseed rape, linseed, sugar beet and pulses.

LODGING cost UK cereal growers an estimated £74m in lost yield and premiums according to BASF. The company calculated the figure using MAFF crop statistics. It based the national loss of £57m in wheat and £17m in barley on a survey of distributors and agronomists which estimated that 15% of the wheat crop and 12% of the winter barley crop suffered serious lodging last year.

ONE-hundred-and-thirty jobs will go at Zenecas factory in Yalding, Kent, over the next three years, with the first 60 redundancies in 1999.

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