Brussels, 30 January 2004
The European Union has announced the support of an ERA-NET aimed at coordinating the national research programmes in the area of plant genomics of ten EU member states and Norway (see annex). In yet another step to create a true European Research Area (ERA), the four year project, "European Research Area Plant Genomics (ERA-PG)", will be supported by €2.2 million from the Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6, 2002-2006). It focuses on sharing best practices, developing common programme management procedures and joint activities, such as the pooling of resources and joint calls for proposals. Trans-national co-operation at programme level will help to maximise the return on the €80 million invested in plant genomics across Europe each year. At the same time, the research programmes must clearly address consumer fears and arguments about possible environmental danger versus the agricultural advantages of plant genomics, while highlighting their importance as an area of scientific research.
"Plant genomics was pioneered and developed in Europe. It is an area that holds much potential for addressing important societal issues, ranging from sustainable agriculture and the clean-up of polluted sites to food quality and human health. I welcome the commitment of national plant genomics programmes to pool efforts in an ERA-NET cooperation scheme. It should help to keep our world class researchers in Europe," said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "The coordination of this technology area is essential for the continued competitiveness of European agriculture and industry. Eventually, ERA-PG could identify new research avenues in which Europe should contribute to international programmes or attempt to secure worldwide leadership."
Plant genomics for better crops
The introduction of genetically modified crops in Europe continues to be a matter of intense debate. While scientists generally agree on the benefits such crops can bring, consumers tend to be sceptical. Arguments about environmental risks and worldwide agricultural benefits abound. But research continues and has to continue. Policy-makers, meanwhile, have to make informed, science-based decisions. And plant genomics will not only serve the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but bring beneficial applications in a whole series of other activities, such as accelerating and improving traditional plant breeding or cleaning up industrially polluted sites.
The widespread public debate has highlighted the importance of plant genomics as a subject for scientific research. Directly or indirectly, plants produce most of the world's food as well as offering renewable sources of energy and materials. From forestry to pharmaceuticals, plants are central to a significant proportion of European industry. Studying their genomes is essential to drive innovation, to stimulate commercial exploitation, and to keep Europe's economy competitive.
More ERA-PG co-ordination
Europe invests around €80 million every year in plant genomics research an amount comparable with the USA. However, this sum is split between numerous national research programmes. Co-ordination of these national research programmes for plant genomics would help Europe to deploy its research budgets more coherently, optimise its investment in expensive resources, and ensure that its results are at the cutting edge of today's plant genomics.
ERA-PG brings most of European plant genomics under one flag and gives it the critical mass needed for research to be a key driver of innovation in this sector. It integrates national and regional programmes to develop the common knowledge necessary for coherent policy development, and a structure that will allow limited resources to be used as efficiently as possible. This ERA-NET scheme has a long-term perspective. By progressively aligning genomics programmes across Europe, it aims to plan strategically, and ultimately to fund, research at a trans-national level. This is the only way, the partners believe, to meet the European demand for plant genomics in medicine, agriculture and industrial innovation.
ERA-PG is built on a strong foundation of existing collaborations. There are already joint co-operation actions between the national programmes of France and Germany which, with Spain, have also launched a tri-national plant genomics programme with joint funding. So far, organisations from eleven European countries, including Norway, have joined ERA-PG, including national funding organisations, ministries and scientific academies. However, the network is committed to expanding its membership, especially to other member states and candidate countries that are themselves launching plant genomics initiatives.
ERA-PG has already begun a simple exchange of information between the participants to determine the current state of genomics research, its management, administration and the research priorities of each country. From the information collected, the network is identifying and encouraging best practice among the participants. This benchmarking exercise will help the partners to formulate strategic activities. Through short-term exchanges of programme managers and discussions between programme makers and managers, ERA-PG will identify the barriers that hinder greater co-operation and look at initial areas for joint activities. Another task will be to invest in and develop the existing legal frameworks in order to ensure durable collaboration between national and industrial partners.
Europe has an important role to play in the future production of safe and healthy food for the world's growing population.
For ERA-NETactivities please see also IP/03/1707 or
For the thematic priorities on "food quality and safety" and "life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health" in FP6 see also:
European Research Area plant genomics
Netherlands: Netherlands Genomics Initiative
Austria: Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture
Belgium: Ministry of Flanders, Science and Innovation Division
Denmark: Danish Agriculture and Veterinary Research Council
Finland: Academy of Finland
France: Institut de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA)
Germany: Federal Ministry of Education and Research; Deutsche Forchungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
Italy: Ministry of Education, University and Research
Norway: Research Council of Norway
Spain: Ministry of Science and Technology
UK: Biotechnological and Biological Sciences Research Council
Prof Peter Folstar, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, Netherlands Genomics Initiative
PO Box 93035, The Hague, 2509 AA Netherlands
Fax: +31 703 440632
Duration: 4 years
EC funding: €2.20 million
Project reference: CA-510189-ERA