David BYRNE: Consumer Protection fostered by Life Sciences, Biovision Conference, Lyon, 10 April 2003

April 11, 2003

EMBARGO: 10 April 2003

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and indeed an honour to have been asked by the organisers of the Biovision forum to act as co-chairman at this plenary session here today, alongside Professor Imura.

We have two hours in which to cover a lot of ground.

Following a short introduction from me, Professor Imura will make a few introductory remarks, to be followed by the presentations from our four speakers Claude Allegre, William Haseltine, Werner Alber and Richard Platford.

After the presentations there will be an opportunity for you to ask questions on the issues raised.

We have therefore asked each speaker to limit his address to 15 minutes to give ample time for discussion.

This will, we hope, encourage an engaging and fully interactive session, and make best use of the time we have available.

An appropriate place for me to start is with the key idea of the whole conference, the dynamic of the "three thirds" a simple depiction of a circle divided into three equal sectors representing science , industry and society . This illustrates neatly the crucial interfaces among these three sectors that must exist as a basis for future harmonious progress.

In my role as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, I naturally take a particular interest in the societal aspect of the three thirds that is, the position of consumers.

The policies I promote and pursue are first and foremost "people focused". In a political context it is vital that people feel connected and have confidence that political institutions, be they local, national or European, have the interests of the citizen at their very heart.

To help foster, encourage and bolster such connections we are taking action at European level to strengthen the consumers' voice in the formation of policies that affect them.

And this connection to society is surely as important in the realm of science as it is in politics.

Within my sphere of responsibility, science plays a key role. For example, four years ago, following a succession of food related crises, public confidence in the European food supply was at an all time low. Something had to be done to rectify the situation.

I am proud to say that we are now nearing completion of a root and branch reform of EU food and food safety legislation.

A crucial element has been the creation of the European Food Safety Authority an independent body to provide objective science as the very foundation of the risk management decisions that need to be taken to ensure that the highest levels of food safety are maintained.

This approach relies heavily on public trust of science in order for it to succeed. But public trust of science is not something that can be taken for granted.

The results of the latest Eurobarometer survey on "Europeans and biotechnology" provide food for thought.

Overall, in a sample of over 16 000 citizens across the Member States, 44% of those who expressed an opinion were optimistic about biotechnology, 17% pessimistic with the balance of 39% neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The "don't knows" amounted to 25% of those asked.

This indicates an apparent reversal of the trend observed over the past decade when public optimism about biotechnology was in decline. This is encouraging.

However, beneath these headline figures, a clear difference emerged between medical applications, for which support was relatively high, and agricultural and food applications, which were not widely supported.

Public perception of science can be difficult to predict and even more difficult to explain. Frequently it may seem to fly in the face of logic and rationality.

Likewise, public perception of risk can seem similarly distorted. Some issues are broadly regarded as threatening, despite a lack of supporting evidence. On the other hand, some dangerous activities, for example smoking, where the risks are well established, often seem to be of less concern.

The issue of GMOs is amongst the most striking and indeed high profile examples of exaggerated risk perception within European society.

There is no know case of mortality from eating a GMO product yet suspicion, paranoia and even outright hostility remains. Scientists might typify the "people factor" as a "widely fluctuating variable".

However, it would be a grave error to underestimate or ignore the concerns of citizens, by adopting a high-handed "we know best" attitude.

The negative perception with regard to new technologies is often due to a lack of knowledge. Therefore, it is essential that policy makers and industry proceed transparently and communicate with the public accordingly.

Indeed citizens' concerns over GMOs were taken fully into account in the context of developing European legislation in this area.

EU citizens demand to be informed of GM presence in foodstuffs to enable them to exercise choice over whether or not to buy GM products. We have met that demand through a legal obligation on food producers for labelling to indicate GM presence over a certain threshold.

I am acutely aware that some are against the EU stance on this issue on the grounds that GMOs are safe so labelling should be unnecessary. But to try to impose such a position on our citizens would, I am sure, not be conducive for a positive public attitude towards science.

In the pursuit of scientific progress it is vital that society is fully involved. If science is perceived to exist in a bubble, isolated from society, serving its own academic and financial interests rather than engaging with society, mistrust and suspicion will inevitably follow.

The European Commission is actively promoting this important link to help bring science closer to people. This initiative falls under the responsibility of my colleague Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for Research.

In December 2001 the Commission adopted an Action Plan on the theme of Science and Society as part of the broader effort to create a true European Research Area, aiming to build a more harmonious relationship between scientific endeavour and European society.

The action plan covers a range of initiatives in three main directions:

  • Promoting education and science culture in Europe;

  • Bringing science closer to citizens; and

  • Responsible science for policy making.
More specifically, the Commission launched "Life Sciences and Biotechnology a Strategy for Europe" in January of last year.

This strategy has two principal elements, a policy paper and an action plan, with the aim of fostering a continuing dialogue through the setting up of a stakeholders' forum.

My services are currently preparing a stakeholders' forum on risk perception of GM agri-food, which will take place in December this year.

The idea behind the stakeholders' forum is to create a platform for open and balanced discussion amongst all stakeholders, including scientists and academia, consumers and other NGOs as well as farmers and industry. I believe this is this way forward to address the controversy surrounding agri-food biotechnology.

We will build on the experiences from the successful OECD conferences in Edinburgh in 2000 and in Bangkok 2001, which similarly included a cross section of society and also involved the perspective of developing countries.

Before I hand over to Professor Imura, allow me to make one final point.

I have already spoken about GMOs and the difficulties that have arisen largely because of public fear and suspicion. Clearly, we need to ensure that the public debate is based on sound scientific data and clear and correct facts.

As Mr Brinkhorst, the former Minister for Agriculture in the Netherlands, has pointed out, NGOs and industry should come together in an open dialogue to overcome the current excessive polarisation of the debate surrounding biotechnology. To this effect they should be accountable to the public for the information they provide.

We need to learn the lessons of the GMO debate and ensure that citizens do not feel alienated from future advances in the field of biotechnology.

To achieve this we need to ensure that scientific progress is matched by rigorous efforts and actions to guard against inappropriate, unethical or even dangerous use of new scientific developments.

May I finish by asking you in the course of this session to keep firmly in mind the need to strengthen the essential links between science , industry and society in pursuit of enhancing the lives of citizens world-wide, through scientific advancement.

Thank you. Professor Imura …..

DN: SPEECH/03/196 Date: 10/04/2003

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