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Genetically Altered Potato Raises Opposition

LIMBURGERHOF, Germany: When Timo Böhme, a plant scientist, pulls up the cluster of dirt-encrusted potatoes from a tidy field here, he cradles them like a precious baby. For his employer, the German chemical giant BASF, these unassuming golden orbs, called Amflora potatoes, are the culmination of nearly 20 years of research and hold the promise of immense future profits. But not just yet.

Amflora potatoes, likely to become the first genetically modified crop in the past decade to be approved for growth in Europe, have become the unlikely poster child in the angry debate over such products on the Continent.

The European Commission now says it will approve the potato "probably this fall," even though European ministers have twice been deadlocked on approval in the past eight months, with only a minority voting in favor. According to European Union procedures, "the ministers have not been able to take a decision, so we will have to reaffirm our earlier opinion to recommend it," said Barbara Helferrich, spokeswoman for the European Commission's Environment Directorate.

But European environmental groups are critical of Amflora potatoes, saying they could release dangerous genes into the environment; approving Amflora would make "a mockery of EU law," said Marco Contiero, an expert on genetically modified organisms at Greenpeace in Brussels.

Still, perhaps the biggest hurdle for Amflora is the visceral popular reaction against genetically modified crops on a continent whose food culture is ancient and treasured.

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