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"White" Biotechnology on Expansion Course

Gernot Jaeger (dc)February 25, 2005

Unlike "green" biotechnology, the "white" variety is less well known -- and less controversial. It's regarded as a global growth market, and one in which German industry hopes to play a part.

Detergent production is just one area using white biotechnologyImage: dpa

"White" biotechnology -- which uses living cells like moulds, yeasts or bacteria to produce goods and service -- has long ceased to be a futuristic concept. Every day, millions of people buy products containing the technology, such as washing powder which contains enzymes to make it more efficient. These modern detergents work with less water and in lower temperatures, meaning less waste water, and lower energy consumption.

It's a good example of the benefits of white biotechnology, according to Fritz Brickwedde of the Bundesstiftung Umwelt, a national foundation for the environment.

"We have three goals which we'd like to see realized alongside white biotechnology -- the protection of limited natural resources, the reduction of environmental pollution, and a more efficient means of production," Brickwedde said.

Political framework

The expectations are high. Studies predict that in just a few years, up to a fifth of revenues from the chemical industry worldwide will come from biotech products -- a market of over €300 billion ($396 billion). Jürgen Hambrecht, president of the chemical industry association, believes it's important that Germany take a leading role in this market.

"In the area of white biotechnology, the German chemical industry wants to continue to be a world leader, as we are today," Hambrecht said. "Whether that will happen depends on how the political framework continues to develop."

Genmais Feld in Bayern
Bavaria has several fields where genetically modified crops have been planted under strict regulationImage: AP

Hambrecht's concern is with white biotechnology's sister field, namely, "green" biotechnology, or the planting of genetically manipulated crops. "We're dealing with a kind of magic triangle here -- green genetic technology, renewable raw materials, and white biotechnology," he said. "Those who don't see this certainly won't be among those to help usher in the future of this technology."

Migration abroad

In other words: Industry views Germany's laws on genetic technology as overly restrictive. Hambrecht wants to be able to more easily plant genetically modified crops, as only by pursuing this field can the progress of white biotechnology be assured.

Hambrecht's main criticism is directed at Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement, who responded: "As far as our legislation is concerned, in my view, it is deserving of criticism. We held a critical discussion, so my assumption is that we're in the midst of a process which could lead to changes on the laws regarding genetic technology, and in my opinion, should lead to changes."

The chemical industry clearly has a sympathetic ear in Clement. However, the economics minister can't speak for the whole government, and especially not for coalition partner, the Green party. After all, the Greens harbor the most committed opponents to the cultivation of genetically modified plants.

The next assessment of the legislation's status is due to take place in two years' time. The chemical industry is waiting with baited breath. Should the laws not be loosened, Hambrecht predicts that German research and development in the biotechnology sector will suffer, adding that it would no longer be possible to rule out a brain drain of German talent to countries with more relaxed legislation.