Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thanks, Europe!

When the Luddites first protested mechanized looms and the Industrial Revolution more broadly they thought that their actions were protecting English society from the horrible job-killing effects of innovation and automation.  But as any economics student can tell you, such protests were utterly misguided: innovation and productivity gains don't increase unemployment because, while they might destroy old, obsolete jobs (like, you know, bank tellers), they free up resources for new and better jobs.  Of course, in today's global market for goods, services and (to a lesser extent) labor, when a society rejects innovative technologies or makes it cost-prohibitive to employ them, the new jobs, economic growth and, yes, further innovation associated with such technologies don't disappear - they simply move to a more hospitable jurisdiction.

Case in point: the 140 high-paying plant science jobs that are currently en route to my neck of the woods due to continued European resistance to genetically-modified foods:
BASF SE, the maker of the Amflora genetically modified potato, is moving the plant-science division that alters genes in crops to the U.S. from Germany after European consumers resisted the technology.

The unit’s headquarters in Limburgerhof will shift to Raleigh, North Carolina, and development and commercialization of products targeted solely at cultivation in Europe will be halted, BASF said today in a statement. The move will lead to the loss of 140 European jobs and cost a “low two-digit million amount,” Stefan Marcinowski, the BASF board member who oversees plant biotechnology, said today on a conference call.

“There is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians,” Marcinowski said. “It does not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market.”

The flight of research means Germany may lose out on the $12 billion market for genetically modified plants, which is set to grow 5 percent annually over the next five years, according to advisory firm Phillips McDougall. BASF, the world’s biggest chemical maker, founded the agricultural center in 1914 in Limburgerhof, near the company’s headquarters city of Ludwigshafen....

The plant-science unit will concentrate on the Americas and Asia, BASF said. Its sites in Gatersleben, Germany, and Svalov, Sweden, will close, while research will continue in Ghent, Belgium, and Berlin, the company said. Limburgerhof, which has 11,000 square meters of greenhouses and about 40 hectares of fields, will retain its crop-protection activities, it said.

Genetically modified potato products will no longer be developed specifically for Europe, though the unit will continue seeking regulatory approval to “maintain all options,” the company said. The chemical maker spent a “high two-digit million amount” on developing its genetically altered potatoes, Marcinowski said....
As the article above makes abundantly clear, the biggest loss (or, depending on your location, gain) here probably isn't those 140 jobs, as great as they are - it's the research and innovation that will inevitably result from moving those jobs to North Carolina.  Those advancements will then bring more investment, jobs and growth to the area in the same and peripheral sectors.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Europe's skepticism towards GM foods has long been more about local politics (mainly protecting small farmers and placating fear-mongering environmentalists) than good policy or strong science.  The negatives of those politics, however, have typically been cast in terms of their detrimental effects on exporters of GM foods in other markets (particularly the United States) and EU consumers.  BASF's latest announcement makes clear that if you embrace Luddism for too long, the pain will spread a lot further than that.

The only bright side here is that we all won't suffer from the EU's bad policies.  More accommodating places like the United States will roll out the red carpet for BASF and any other dejected European company that wants to join them over here.

So... willkommen in Nord Carolina, meine Freunde!

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