Advances in understanding the genetic make-up of plants could ultimately help to produce more resilient, higher-yielding crops, the head of French seed company Limagrain said, with the potential to end the heated debate over genetic modification.
Distrust of crops produced using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has marginalised the technology in Europe, where politicians this month moved closer to giving countries the scope to ban such crops even when they have regulatory clearance.
GM crops, which now account for about half of a global seed market estimated at $40 billion, have divided opinion between proponents who cite improved yields at a time of shrinking natural resources and opponents who point to environmental risks, food safety concerns and unfair terms for farmers.
However, Limagrain President Jean-Yves Foucault says the controversy clouds the potential of plant gene research to bring improved results by traditional methods.
"If you get an intimate understanding of a plant, you may get answers via traditional selection without using GMOs," Foucault told Reuters. "GMOs are an important question but one that shouldn't be dramatised."
Farmers cooperative Limagrain, the world's fourth-largest seed maker by sales through its listed subsidiary Vilmorin , sells genetically modified seed types on the American continent and is developing its own GMO maize (corn) as it competes with larger rivals such as Monsanto.
But the company still generates nearly two thirds of its overall sales in Europe, where use of GM crops is minimal, and last year achieved record sales of maize seed in its home continent.
Researchers have mapped the genome, or complete genetic material, of several crops and are working on deciphering that of wheat, the world's most widely grown crop and one that has a particularly complex genetic make-up.
Limagrain's Vilmorin, like its peers, is working on GMO wheat as part of the push to boost yields, but has cautioned that a commercial launch is unlikely this decade.
Vilmorin contributed about three quarters of Limagrain's record sales of 1.97 billion euros ($2.45 billion) in its 2013/14 financial year, up 1.5 percent on the previous year.