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The Scariest Veggies of Them All

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

Last July, when Monsanto withdrew its applications to sell genetically modified biotech seeds in the European Union, the move opened the way for competitors to challenge Monsanto's market share.

As opposition to genetically modified crops has spread across Europe and the world, leading chemical companies including BASF and DuPont have turned to mutagenesis-a technique that mimics the sun's irradiation of plants-to create herbicide-resistant crops. The process, which faces almost no regulation, creates opportunities for companies to grab a bigger share of the $34 billion global commercial seed market. But some scientists say mutant crops are more likely to pose health risks than genetically modified ones.

Mutagenesis isn't new: Breeders have relied on it for decades to produce thousands of varieties of lettuce, oats, rice, and other crops. BASF today licenses its technologies to 40 of the world's biggest seed companies, including DuPont and Switzerland's Syngenta, which in turn sell high volumes of mutant breeds, ranging from wheat to sunflowers, in markets that reject genetically engineered seeds.

Earnings at BASF's agriculture unit rose 27 percent in 2012 from the previous year, partly because of higher demand for mutant seeds in Eastern Europe, according to the company's latest annual report. "The flexibility is there to use this technology quite broadly," says Jonathan Bryant, vice president of the global strategic marketing group for herbicides at BASF. "Because it's a conventional breeding technique   it's very amenable for a wide range of seed companies."

How much of a challenge does this pose to Monsanto? The world's largest creator of genetically altered crops-it develops and sells seed produced by farmers it contracts with-accounts for a sizable chunk of the global seed market. It had $14.9 billion in sales in fiscal 2013; $10.3 billion of that was from the sale of seeds and genetic licenses. The St. Louis-based company doesn't break down sales figures, but it says most of its seed revenue comes from genetically modified organisms.

While earnings have grown at a rate of more than 20 percent the previous three years, Monsanto faces increased regulation and bans of its GMOs in some countries as well as political hurdles that can delay product launches for years, or indefinitely.

The EU has approved planting only one of Monsanto's genetically modified crop varieties in two decades, prompting its decision to withdraw eight pending GMO requests last summer. It's not the only company confronting roadblocks with GMOs in Europe. BASF last year decided to move its plant science division, dedicated to engineered crops, to the U.S. from Germany. Even in the U.S., bills pending in 26 state legislatures and before Congress would, if passed, require labels on genetically modified foods. No such disclosures are required on ingredients derived from mutant crops.    
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