By Gus Trompiz
PARIS (Reuters) - French seed maker Vilmorin & Cie SA has dropped plans to conduct field tests of genetically modified (GM) crops next year in its home market because debate over the technology remains too highly charged, the company said on Wednesday.
Vilmorin, the world's fourth-largest seed group, had envisaged conducting field tests in France next spring, its finance director said, but had opted to suspend those plans.
"The political climate led us to put the question on hold for now," Daniel Jacquemond said. "We don't want to be provocative."
A study published last month by French researchers that raised health concerns about a type of maize (corn) made by Monsanto Co reignited controversy in France, where opposition to the technology is fierce and commercial planting of GM crops is banned.
Vilmorin did not comment on the study but argued GM crops were necessary to support agricultural production.
"These are absolutely essential components for the competitiveness of agriculture including Europe," Jacquemond said in a presentation on the company's 2011/12 results.
Vilmorin, controlled by French farm cooperative Limagrain, has in the past carried out open-field tests of GM plants in France, but stopped such work due to the hostile climate marked by protesters ransacking test sites.
The company is investing in research in France, including into GM varieties, and opened three new laboratories in the past year in a 40 million euro ($51.6 million) investment.
It is also continuing field trials in three other European Union countries, notably in Spain, which is the largest grower of GM maize in the 27-member EU. [ID:nL5E8E18I4]
The field tests under way in Europe are contributing to the group's development of its own GM varieties in partnership with German peer KWS SAAT AG, and which could lead to the market launch of new products in four years, Vilmorin said.
Vilmorin sells GM seeds, mainly maize, outside Europe but does not have its own patented traits, which means it uses strains under licence from rival companies such as Monsanto.
The group has been seeking to expand its international presence through a series of small acquisitions and Jacquemond said it hopes to conclude two further deals, one in Brazil and one in Asia ex-China, in coming months.
The group aims to raise its market share in maize in Brazil to 10 percent by 2015, from 2 to 3 percent, and to 20 percent in India by 2020 from 8 to 9 percent, he added.
For its financial year through June 2013, the group said it expects its crop seed business to continue strong growth on the back of attractive grain prices for farmers, while its vegetable seed division should recover from a hit to demand last year linked to health crises in Europe and the United States.
It is forecasting like-for-like sales growth of more than 6 percent, compared with 11 percent in 2011/12, and a current operating margin of 11 percent, close to last year's 10.8 percent.
(Editing by David Holmes)