Food for Thought: BASF Plant Sciences Moving to the US

NGOs such as Greenpeace and BUND as well as Green politicians such as Rhineland-Palatinate State Minister Ulrike Hoefken, responsible for the environment, agriculture, food, viniculture and forests, hailed the recent decision by German chemical company BASF to move its plant science activities from Limburgerhof, Rhineland-Palatinate/Germany, to Raleigh, North Carolina.

BASF said the decision was made because of “lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe”, adding it did “not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market.” As a result, development and commercialization of all products targeted solely at cultivation in the European market will be halted.

In response to this decision, Minister Hoefken said that “the research by BASF has not been constrained by any means”, adding the decision was caused by lack of success of genetically engineered products in cultivation and marketing. She also stated, “agrogenetic engineering is not able to comply with statutory provisions. Agrogenetic engineering is no worthwhile future technology.”

Hoefken, however, did not say that politicians have bestowed great care in the past to make regulatory provisions as impractical as possible for companies developing genetically engineered plants.  As examples, companies and farmers planting genetically engineered crops are liable for compensation if conventional crops (or honey) in the vicinity are “contaminated” with genes by the genetically engineered variants. There is no threshold level defined so that based on today’s PCR capabilities it is very easy to find them, and the “contaminated” harvest is treated and destroyed as if polluted with plutonium. In addition, fields tilled with genetically engineered plants have to be disclosed in a public registry – an invitation for self-proclaimed “field liberators” which vandalize the fields in a well-organized manner on a regular basis, flogging security guards and destroying plants and machinery. A list of these destructions compiled by the Federation of German Plant Breeders (BPI) can be found here. Politics has done nothing to stop this practice.

While BASF will slash 140 positions in Europe, it will keep and strengthen its research facilities at metanomics in Berlin/Germany and CropDesign in Ghent/Belgium. “Although the conditions for cultivation of genetically modified crops in Europe are unfavorable, there are world-class research institutes and universities in both Berlin and Ghent,” said Dr. Peter Eckes, President of BASF Plant Science. “We have excellent scientists and facilities there and at our research sites in North America.” BASF therefore will continue its research at these locations. metanomics profiles metabolites, e.g. for gene discovery, mechanism-of-action studies, biomarker discovery and other applications. Metabolite profiling for healthcare customers in industry and academia are offered by BASF Group company metanomics health, also based in Berlin.

Already in 2004, Bayer and Syngenta had stopped their activities to test genetically modified plants in Germany. The only company still pursuing such tests in Germany is KWS Saat AG .

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) this week in a special section (not online yet) deals with prion diseases such as Kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, BSE and scrapie and the history of the discovery that some CNS disorders are caused not by pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses, but by infectious proteins. In one of the articles, Volker Stollorz deals with the implication of the discovery. It led to the notion that CNS diseases can be caused by misfolding of proteins, and meanwhile  about 2 dozen neurological disorders are classified as “proteopathies”, among them Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Stollorz features research that points to the possibility that proteopathies spread through the body by some sort of domino effect. In this case, it cannot be ruled out that they are contagious – which would have enormous consequences for medicine. To rule out the possibility that modern medicine contributes to the spread of neurodegenerative diseases, some researchers already call for sterilizing medical instruments with procedures that also deactivate proteins.

Ralph Diemann in Süddeutsche Zeitung this week introduces photovoltaic company Konarka, which is using the site and machinery of Polaroid company to manufacture sheets producing electric current. Using the old Polaroid instant film technology, the company is printing conductive molecules on extremely thin, light and flexible films that can be applied to common goods – sunshades, car bodies, window panes or even clothes. First products – daypacks and bags producing current to charge mobile phones, already have reached the market. Other companies – BASF, Thyssen-Krupp and Bischoff Glastechnik – will follow suit, Diemann writes. Disadvantages at present are a very low efficiency, a durability of a few years only and a high price.

The Economist this week reports on experiments of various research groups, which have turned mind-reading into reality. The results are still crude, but already, recording brain activity has proven to be an inroad into this area.

Belle Dumé in The New Scientist makes the case for green tea and red laser to treat Alzheimer’s disease. While epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), an ingredient of green tea can reduce beta amyloid plaques in the brain, red laser light which penetrates tissue and even bone can facilitate uptake of EGCG by the brain and by brain cells. The results come from animal experiments.

Last not least, Robert McMillan in Wired reports about the symbiotic relationship between IT and manure. IT company Hewlett-Packard (HP) seriously is thinking about using cow dung to power future data centers. These centers produce a lot of heat which can be used to heat cow dung for the production of methane, which in turn can power the data center.