Lack of information and public scepticism on agricultural biotechnology contribute to biotech companies leaving Europe

March 17, 2003

Brussels, 14 March 2003

Commission surveys published today indicate that, while most Europeans are in favour of medical applications of biotechnology, they are still sceptical about agricultural and food-related biotech. This, combined with an uncertain legal situation and doubts on future commercial markets, is leading to a sharp decrease in biotech research in Europe. The Eurobarometer "Europeans and biotechnology 2002"reveals that 44% of those polled believe that biotechnology will improve their quality of life, compared to 17% who do not, with 25% undecided. But there is a lack of support for agricultural and food applications, contrasting with a strong backing for medical uses. This is seriously slowing down biotech R&D in the EU, particularly in the private sector, and may put at risk Europe's competitiveness in a promising sector of new technologies. According to an EU study on scientific and technological developments in GM plants, the number of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) field trial applications in the EU has dropped by 76% since 1998. GMO research has also been seriously undermined. 39% of the respondents have cancelled R&D projects on GMOs over the last four years. This share is higher for the private sector alone: 61 % of respondents have stopped projects in this field

"People in Europe are becoming increasingly aware of biotechnology applications and their benefits", said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "We must continue to champion a rational and informed debate on biotechnology so that Europeans are able to make informed decisions. Without sound scientific evidence, the debate will always be distorted. There is a perceived lack of scientific and other information, and the increasingly sceptic climate is scaring European biotech companies and research centres away. If we do not reverse the trend now, we will be unable to reap the benefits of the life science revolution and become dependent on technologies developed elsewhere. Now that strict EU legislation in this field is finally in place, there is no ground for unjustified fears and prejudice."

Informing the debate

The Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology and the life sciences is the fifth in just over ten years. The survey is based on a representative sample of 16,500 respondents, approximately 1000 in each EU member state. The European Commission has emphasised the need for "societal scrutiny and dialogue" in the Communication on "Life Sciences and Biotechnology - A Strategy for Europe" in 2002, and in the recent progress report.

Ready to listen

When asked whether biotechnology would improve our way of life or not, 44% of European citizens were optimistic, 17% pessimistic and 25% said they didn't know. This is about the same percentage as in 1999. After a decade of continuously declining optimism in biotechnology, the trend has reversed in this latest survey. In the period 1999-2002, optimism has increased to the level seen in the early 1990s. This rise in optimism holds for all the EU Member States with the exception of Germany and the Netherlands, where such a rise was observed between 1996 and 1999.

Medical application wins greatest support

Opinions differ greatly when asked about medical or industrial applications of biotechnology compared to agri-food. For instance genetic testing for inherited diseases and cloning human cells and tissues are supported in all Member States. Xenotransplantation, however, which involves the use of transgenic animals to produce organs to be transplanted in human beings, is perceived to be both moderately useful and moderately risky. The use of genetically modified enzymes to produce environmentally friendly washing powders is well perceived and supported by a majority of Europeans.

For genetically modified (GM) crops, support is lukewarm, while they are judged to be moderately useful they are seen as almost as risky as GM foods. Public opinion tends to support GM crops in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Belgium, UK, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, while France, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg have publics that are, on average, opposed to GM crops.

Most Europeans do not support GM foods , considering them of little value and dangerous for society. Overall support for GM foods is seen in only four countries - Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Finland. These varying degrees of acceptance show that Europeans continue to distinguish between different types of applications, particularly medical in contrast to agri-food applications.

Changes in attitudes in EU countries: a turning point in 1999?

All the EU countries, with the exception of Spain and Austria, showed moderate to large declines in support for both GM crops over the period 1996-1999. Thereafter support more or less stabilises in France and Germany and increases in all the other countries with the exception of Italy, which sees a 10% decline in support.

How Europeans value biotech experts and authorities

Around 70% of Europeans trust doctors, university scientists, consumer organisations and patients' organisations. Around 55% have confidence in scientists working in industry, newspapers and magazines, environmental groups, shops, farmers and the European Commission. However, less than 50% had faith in their own government and in industry. Yet, across Europe as a whole about 25% lack confidence in farmers, shops, government and industry. In addition, there is more confidence in the European Commission, than in national governments in relation to regulations and their implementation.

The impact on European biotech industry

The study on scientific and technological developments in GM plants published by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) shows that the prolonged slowdown in R&D for agricultural GMOs has had widespread consequences. The EU has seen significant delays to new GM varieties and applications; small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have stopped participating in innovative plant biotechnology research and large biotech companies have relocated research, field trials and commercialisation of new GMOs outside the EU. This will quite possibly lead to importing and processing only of GM materials in the EU. However, in marked contrast, interest in GM technology continues to grow outside Europe, with many new applications being researched and followed up in field trials.

Providing a sound scientific basis

The Commission study provides for a list of new commercial GM varieties in the pipeline in the short, medium and long term. The intention is to devise a sound scientific basis for EU policy development and implementation, particularly regarding the traceability, labelling and regulation of GMO use in food, feed and seed.

Most studies on GMOs are based on information provided by research laboratories and/or released by industry. They mainly focus on technological developments outside Europe little has been done on looking at the situation within Europe. The original data for the Commission study was generated from a survey of the research phase of European R&D projects. The poll involved all major biotech players in Europe, including public research centres, universities, biotech companies and SMEs.

It was based on questionnaires and personal interviews, and carried out from February to April 2002. A statistical analysis followed to study the development phase of research, using the database maintained by the JRC on experimental GM plant release field trials conducted in the EU in the last ten years.

The study shows that in the next decade, the range and quality of genetic modifications in crops and the numbers of new products likely to be seeking regulatory approval will be greater than those already considered.

Now that the directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment has entered into force, the rate of submission of new GMO applications requesting authorisation is now expected to accelerate. First generation GMOs focused on agronomic traits, but the next generation may include new approaches, as scientists increasingly seek to take advantage of the potential for biotechnology to improve food quality, deliver new medicines, contribute to preventing diseases, and improve environmental interactions.

For further information, please visit:

Eurobarometer "Europeans and biotechnology in 2002"

"Review of GMOs under R&D and in the pipeline in Europe"

See also:

DN: IP/03/387 Date: 14/03/2003

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