Europe Reverses Position to Support Genetic Engineering

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 24, 2002 (ENS) - A manifesto in favor of biotechnology in the European Union issued Wednesday by its executive branch, the European Commission, calls for stronger backing for a sector seen as critical to future competitiveness. The communication proposes adopting "the highest standards of governance" to win over a sceptical public.

Ethical and environmental worries have "detracted attention" from the strategic importance of the life sciences, the Commission asserts. "This has stifled our competitive position, weakened our research capability and could limit our policy options in the longer term."

corn

Field of Novartis transgenic corn (Photo courtesy Novartis)
Rather than accept such a "passive and reactive role," it goes on, Europe should "develop proactive policies to exploit" biotechnology. "The longer Europe hesitates the less realistic this...option will be."

A key battleground will be the development of new genetically modified (GM) crops, the EU approvals process for which has been deadlocked since 1998. Over the past year the EU executive has gradually stepped up its rhetoric, with agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler last September accusing anti-GM member states of "populism."

"A revolution is taking place in the knowledge base of life sciences and biotechnology, opening up new applications in health care, agriculture and food production, environmental protection, as well as new scientific discoveries. This is happening globally," the commission states.

"The common knowledge base relating to living organisms and ecosystems is producing new scientific disciplines such as genomics and bioinformatics and novel applications, such as gene testing and regeneration of human organs or tissues. These in turn offer the prospect of applications with profound impacts throughout our societies and economies, far beyond uses such as genetically modified plant crops," says the commission, which does not want Europe to be left behind.

Opposition to genetically modified crops has been shown in public rallies across Europe, and has been espoused by some high profile dignitaries including the UK's Prince Charles.

prince

(Photo courtesy Prince of Wales)
In May 2000, the Prince of Wales said on the BBC, "Above all, we should show greater respect for the genius of nature's designs, rigorously tested and defined over millions of years. This means being careful to use science to understand how nature works, not to change what nature is, as we do when genetic manipulation seeks to transform a process of biological evolution into something altogether different." "The idea that the different parts of the natural world are connected through an intricate system of checks and balances which we disturb at our peril is all too easily dismissed as no longer relevant," the Prince said.

Friends of the Earth Europe has been campaigning for years to safeguard for the people of Europe "the right to choose GM-free food, to grow GM-free crops and to protect GM-free habitats," the group says.

Acknowledging public hostility to this and other aspects of biotechnology, the commission paper asserts that Europe must develop policies that "enjoy the confidence and support of its citizens." In response it proposes a five point agenda for achieving "the highest standards of governance."

These include commitments to "societal dialogue and scrutiny" plus respect for "ethical values and societal goals." Furthermore, consumers should be able to exercise "informed choice."

The Commission goes on to promise action to "clarify the need, and possible options" for measures to ensure "sustainable coexistence" of conventional and organic farming with GM crops.

The Commission will support the development of methodologies for monitoring "potential long term environmental impacts of GMO's as compared with conventional crops, and methodologies for the monitoring of effects of genetically modified food and feed as compared with conventional food and feed."

With the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority, the work on the early identification of emerging risks will be reinforced and upgraded, the commission says.

canola

Canola, or oil rapeseed, is often genetically modified. It shows up on grocery shelves as cooking oil and in baked goods. (Photo courtesy Narrandera High School)
It also pledges to report next year on the feasibility of "further improving...the framework for authorizing GMOs for deliberate release into the environment, including a centralized Community authorization process."

In opposition to genetically modified crops, the organic foods movement is gathering steam. On Tuesday, hundreds of people from across the country came to London to urge the government to do more to support organic farming in the UK. The Organic Targets campaign wants the Government to ensure that 30 percent of UK agricultural land is organic by 2010 and that an organic action plan is put in place.

But the commission is now firmly behind genetic modification, and extends this support to developing countries. There the EU supports, "the redefining of national research towards an appropriate mix of traditional techniques and new technologies, based on priorities developed with local farmers."

The commission supports "the development and enforcement of effective measures to conserve, to use sustainably and to provide access to genetic resources and traditional knowledge, as well as to share equitably the benefit arising from them, including income generated by intellectual property protection."