TCS Daily


Left in the Organic Dust

By John Purvis - July 9, 2003 12:00 AM

For the next several decades, biotechnology will be a leading area of science and industry, of employment, and for enhancing our quality of life. It has the potential to improve our quality of life through medical applications, improved and safer food, and a better environment.

The European Parliament, which adopted my report on the future of the biotechnology industry in 2001, endorsed a positive approach and called for the EU to take action to promote this industry and provide the right environment for it to develop and prosper. At the Lisbon summit in 2000 the leaders of the 15 EU countries committed themselves to making Europe the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world. Biotechnology was singled out as an area that offered bright economic and business prospects at a summit meeting in Stockholm in 2001.

The European biotechnology market could be worth over € 100 billion by 2005. In the EU there are an estimated 1,870 identifiable biotech companies, compared with 1,273 in the U.S. (according to 2001 figures) and the sector employs 87,000 people. Although there has been good growth in recent years, the U.S. still dominates in R&D expenditures and revenues. The EU also faces tough competition from many other countries around the world and there is a danger we will be left behind.

The biggest concern is in plant biotech, which has seen a dramatic drop of 76 percent in research since 1998 in response to negative public and governmental attitudes to GM crops and plants. Small and medium sized companies are reducing their research activities and larger companies are migrating to friendlier environments outside the EU to carry out research and introduce their innovative products commercially. And who can blame them? The de facto moratorium on GMOs has meant that nothing has been approved in Europe for the last five years. In the meantime China, for example, invested $112 million of its R&D budget on crop biotechnology in 1999 and this will be increased 400 percent by 2005. They have approved 31 applications for commercialisation, 65 for environmental release and 45 for field trials (as reported by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, or ISAAA).

GM crops and plants can increase yields and the quality of produce, reduce the need for cultivation, which saves energy and decreases damage to soil and wildlife, and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides with resulting economic and environmental benefits. Consumer benefits can include improved taste and ripening characteristics and longer shelf life as well as reduced cost. In Europe, with our abundant supply of food, we can perhaps afford the luxury of denying ourselves the many benefits that GM crops offer.

In many parts of the developing world, on the other hand, where food is in short supply and where growing conditions are difficult due to pests and diseases and acid or saline soils, the benefits can be life-and-death critical. Farmers in India, who are growing biotech cotton, have seen substantial improvements in crop yield and a very desirable reduction in chemical usage. Producers of other crops all over the developing world have experienced similar benefits, while producers and consumers in developed countries are reaping benefits and competitive advantages that are denied to Europeans.

The use of biotechnology, whether for crops or health, does raise controversial issues, and as a result has come up against strong resistance from certain quarters. Advances in science and technology will often cause concern and it is not therefore surprising that biotechnology, which appears to be changing our very relationship with creation, has met with opposition. There are always possible risks with any new technology. It is therefore vital that adequate safeguards are in place. GMOs have to pass stringent tests in laboratory and field trials prior to being approved as safe for use. Such approvals are based on assessments of risk that have been long established for innovative products whether or not they involve genetic modification. For GMOs, these have been even more demanding and involve stringent labelling and traceability requirements. But ardent opponents will continue to demand proof of zero risk - an impossible criterion - and as a further resort they condone the obstruction and vandalising of the trials, which are necessary to substantiate that safety standards are met.

The opposition to GMOs has shown that public opinion must be taken seriously. GM products appeared on the shelves without consumers knowing what they were. No one explained their benefits or answered consumers' concerns and queries. With the BSE or "mad cow" crisis, many people lost trust in regulators and scientists. The result has been a backlash, from which the industry is still suffering. Polls conducted on attitudes to biotechnology have shown that, for many Europeans, GM food is considered unhealthy, untrustworthy, unnecessary and even morally wrong. They link GM food to industrial farming practices and the dominance of big business (based to some extent on ignorance about the reality of modern farming technology and methods). "Natural" products (which have in fact been genetically modified but via conventional breeding techniques) are seen as safer and healthier.

Politicians, who may recognise the benefits of this technology, are nevertheless dependent on public opinion for their very survival. Fine words have too often been followed by swift retreat in the face of anti-GMO campaigns. As a result the EU does not have an effective, transparent and predictable legal framework in place for the authorisation of GMOs. Currently a manufacturer must notify the national authority where the GMO is to be placed on the market, including an assessment of the risks to human and animal health and the environment. If the application is accepted, the information is sent to the European Commission and to the relevant authorities in all the other EU member states (now 15, by May 2004 these will be 25!). So far when one or more of the other EU countries has, at this stage of the approval process, raised an objection, it has resulted in a temporary, but effectively lengthy, ban on the GM product. In most of these cases the Commission's Scientific Committees have judged that the ban was unjustified -- and yet the ban stands.

The EU's national governments have said that they will end this de facto moratorium once strict labelling and traceability rules have been put in place. The European Parliament voted on new rules at its plenary sitting in July 2003. This will require any product containing more than 0.9 percent GMOs to be labelled and to be traceable back to source. This requirement is extremely burdensome but should lead to a lifting of the ban, while allowing consumers to make an informed choice.

However there is no guarantee that the moratorium will be lifted. The Commission has so far been unwilling to use the sanctions at its disposal against those EU countries that impose the moratorium. Now that the labelling and traceability regulation is in effect, the Commission must be prepared to use all the sanctions at its disposal in order to lift the moratorium. Otherwise biotechnology companies will be left with a very uncertain future and the European economy will be damaged. Our scientists and innovatory companies will emigrate. Jobs and prosperity will suffer. The objectives of the so-called Lisbon agenda, to make Europe the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010, will be at risk.

The new traceability and labelling regime is complex and extremely precautionary. We will have to wait and see how it works in practice. The European Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy, is confident that its introduction will lead to the end of the moratorium and therefore the end of the WTO challenge by the U.S.-led coalition. If it does not bring this about, the idea that Europeans are having this technology forced on them by a WTO decision is only likely to increase public opposition.

Efforts need to be made to restore public confidence by providing consumers with well-balanced information about the benefits as well as any possible risks. I do not believe that we should turn our back on advances in science and technology, which are likely to benefit our environment and our farmers, to create jobs and offer greater choice to consumers. God gave us the ability to apply our minds to improving our lot on this earth. It is up to us to realise the promise of this new knowledge.

John Purvis is a Member of the European Parliament for Scotland.
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