* Company investing heavily in conventional seed business
* $150 mln earmarked for first seed plant in Ukraine
By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS, July 18 (Reuters) - Monsanto said on Thursday it would invest heavily in its European seed business in the coming years in order to boost sales of its other products after it abandoned development of genetically modified crops in the European Union.
The world's largest seed company announced on Wednesday that it would withdraw all applications to grow new GMO crops in Europe because deep opposition to the technology was hurting its commercial prospects.
On Thursday Monsanto said it could now focus on increasing sales of its non-GMO seed and other farm inputs, which account for more than 98 percent of its $1.72 billion annual turnover in Europe.
"People have said we are exiting the GMO business in Europe, but we don't really have a business," Monsanto's President and Managing Director for Europe, Jose Manuel Madero, told Reuters in an interview.
"Conventional seeds is the area where we are focusing at this time in Europe, and we are funding the business in a way that we haven't done for more than 15 years," he said.
The company is already investing $300 million expanding its existing seed production facilities in France, Romania, Hungary and Turkey, and has plans to spend "several hundred million dollars" more over the next five years, Madero said.
The bulk of that future investment is destined for Ukraine, where Monsanto expects to have its largest seed production plant in Europe within five years after earmarking an initial $150 million investment, which could rise to $300 million within several years.
Ukraine is a major global grain producer and is forecast to export 14.5 million tonnes of maize this year. The country currently imports around half of the seed it needs to produce its annual maize crop, but Monsanto said its plant would reduce that dependence by about a fifth.
The company declined to reveal its revenues in Ukraine, but said the total area sown with its seeds there doubled between 2012 and 2013, and that it was optimistic that such growth would continue.
"Income per capita continues to increase around the world, in India and China, and Ukraine is playing a very important role in supplying those markets in Asia with grain, so we need to make sure that we are present there," Madero said.
He was more circumspect about the prospects for expansion in Russia, where Monsanto has been selling its conventional seeds for several years but currently has no production facilities.
"We are assessing exactly what the future looks like for us in Russia, and whether some of those several hundred million dollars are going to go to there or not," he said.
GMO crops are not currently grown in either Russia or Ukraine, and Monsanto says it has no plans to try to cultivate the technology there at present.