Brussels, 04 March 2002
European biotechnology research should be expanded to include further work on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and food quality, states an opinion published in February by the European Economic and Social Committee (ESC).
The document says there is a need to open new fields of research to respond to questions still being raised about GMOs and give priority to strategies designed to improve food quality. The committee warns that although biotechnology will have a key role in the EU's Sixth Framework programme for research, 'the scope of research should not be too narrow, e.g. restricted to medical applications only, but should also include foodstuffs, fine chemicals and the environment.'
The committee states that the increasing importance of biotechnology has significant implications for Europe's citizens, particularly their understanding and acceptance of new developments. It draws attention to the divergence in attitude to medical and agricultural biotech developments, and the difficulties created by 'a general public behaving like a cat on a hot tin roof: enthusiastic about the distribution of genetically engineered insulin but fearful and full of wild ideas when it comes to consumption of GM cornflour, as if it were easier to inject a medicine than to eat a fruit or a salad.'
The document adds that 'the ESC considers the task of informing the general public of the European Community regularly and creatively about developments and the pace of progress in life sciences and biotechnology to be of paramount importance; in the medium and long term this is certainly consistent with the key Community objective of establishing a knowledge-based society.'
This communication with the public about biotechnology and life sciences must be consistent with the proposed Community action plan on lifelong learning, it says, which aims to implement and develop the principle of lifelong learning using information technologies. The action plan will include measures to boost the role of life sciences and biotechnology in school curricula and improve citizens' access to information in this area. The committee says it expects the Commission's strategy to provide for pilot education programmes to inform the general public about new biotech developments, and coordinate measures taken at national and European level to establish and apply rules in both public and private sector research.
The document also argues that while Europe's life sciences research per se is not inadequate, it has a 'tradition of knowledge-sharing which discourages patent applications, and the weakness of links between research and industry, which produces misunderstanding.' While some European governments 'have been slow to grasp the implications of biotechnology in terms of competitiveness, growth and employment,' the committee says, 'the European institutions were much quicker on the uptake.' It adds that following a 'wake-up call' from the Commission, Member State and 'European efforts have borne fruit and the gap with the US has narrowed.'
The document calls, however, for the introduction, 'without delay' of a single Community patent in order to overcome the 'competitive advantage' of the USA. 'There is a fierce global competition in the life sciences sector between American and European research laboratories and a race to protect discoveries,' states the committee.
The document also warns that the competitiveness of high-risk biotech companies has often been 'stymied' by social and legal structures which discourage risk-taking and start-ups, in spite of the creation of industrial platforms which bring together companies, encourage collaboration between research and industry and foster innovation.
Full text of the opinion