Brussels, 25 Jun 2004
Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin has endorsed a 20-year vision for the future of plant biotechnology in Europe, drawn up by representatives from industry, research, agriculture and consumer organisations and presented to him in Brussels on 24 June.
The vision paper represents the first step in establishing a technology platform on plant biotechnology over the coming months. The technology platform will comprise the stakeholders that developed the vision as well as Member State representatives and other experts. Its main task will be to develop a strategic research agenda for the sector.
'Today, in the face of important challenges at the European and global levels, we must pay renewed attention to plants,' writes Mr Busquin in a foreword to the vision document. 'A growing world population has to be fed, and increasing demands for high quality, safe and affordable food have to be met. [...] The transition to a sustainable economy based largely on renewable resources - the 'bio-based' economy - is as inevitable as it is desirable.'
Other high level personalities to endorse the vision besides Mr Busquin included Feike Sijbesma, president of the European association for bioindustries, EuropaBio, and Andrzej Legocki, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences. During a press conference to present the document, Professor Legocki reminded journalists that in past decades it was European researchers who pioneered plant biotechnology, adding that now is the time to apply that knowledge for the benefit of European consumers, industry and agriculture.
'We must launch programmes aimed at carrying out research in key areas, and public-private partnerships should be initiated to develop novel products,' said Professor Legocki. He revealed that the work of the technology platform would follow a road map based on three strategic priorities: producing better quality, healthy and affordable food; promoting agricultural and environmental sustainability; and enhancing European competitiveness through the promotion of basic research.
The vision outlines both short to medium and medium to long term milestones for plant biotechnology in Europe. By 2015, it foresees the creation of basic plant genomics research programmes for the major EU grown crops, projects focused on improving the nutrition of food and feed, and public-private partnerships to develop agricultural, food, energy and biomaterials products. Looking ahead to 2025, the vision is of a comprehensive genomics knowledge base covering all strategically important crops in the EU, superior crop varieties to meet consumer and environmental needs, and partnerships with developing countries to help promote self sufficiency and competitiveness.
Other challenges to be met through research include increasing biodiversity, reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, improving coexistence and developing more efficient bio-fuels.
Commissioner Busquin said that he was happy to lend his support to the initiative for a number of reasons. He highlighted the huge economic importance of plants and plant derived products for Europe, but at the same time pointed to stalling investment and the worrying exodus of biotech researchers and companies from the continent.
When it was suggested that the vision for the technology platform had come five or ten years too late to reverse these trends, however, Mr Busquin disagreed: 'We are not starting from scratch. Much research is already being carried out under the 'Food safety' priority and through the ERA-NET project on plant genomics, but we do need to make an effort to stimulate research in this area.'
Dr Indridi Benediktsson was one of the Commission's representatives in the group that drew up the vision paper, and CORDIS News asked him whether he agreed with this assessment. 'I think the technology platform comes at just the right time, because we now have the necessary legislative framework in place, the required political will, and the support of the biotechnology and research sectors.'
All of those present were at pains to make clear that this is not a vision to promote genetically modified organisms, though GMOs would not be excluded from the agenda. They also stressed that the concerns and views of consumers would be heard in the process through the participation of consumer organisations in the platform.
However, the Commissioner was asked why no anti-GM lobbies had been included in the platform to reflect a view shared by many Europeans. 'This platform is for R&D stakeholders, and therefore we are not obliged to invite those who don't have expertise in research. The Commission will continue to consult with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and environmental organisations, but those who wish to achieve progress in this area must be free to work together.'
Mr Busquin added that Europe has the strictest legislative regime in the world when it comes to GMOs, and that consumers would always be able to make the choice between GM and conventional foods through the EU's new labelling system.
Europe's vision for plant biotechnology was also welcomed by Professor Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the third world academy of sciences. He said that increased partnership with Europe would offer developing countries, particularly in Africa, the opportunity to build their capacity in this sector. 'Many countries are doing very little in this area as they don't have the scientific capacity to make a judgement about the technology themselves.' He argued that by equipping them with the resources to carry out the labour and time intensive practice of genetic sequencing, for instance, developing countries could build their scientific infrastructure and make a contribution to the global research effort. 'Let us not forget that the majority of the world's plant biodiversity is located in some of the poorest countries,' concluded Professor Hassan.
Armed with a vision of the challenges and milestones that lay ahead, the Commission hopes that the plant biotechnology industry in Europe now has the basis it needs to secure its future competitiveness.
To read the vision document, please consult the following web address:
To find out more about the Commission's biotechnology activities, please visit: