Brussels, 05 May 2003
European research into genetically engineered plants and animals has taken a nosedive in the past few years, according to a new survey published by the European Commission.
In the wake of growing public anxiety, the number of research projects into genetically modified organisms (GMOs) conducted by scientists in the European Union has dropped by around 80% since 1998. One of the main reasons behind the fall, according to one of the study's co-authors – the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation in Europe – has been the EU-wide moratorium, which was agreed by the Council of Environment Ministers in 1999, on growing commercial GM plants.
In the four years since the freeze was introduced, field trial applications for new plant varieties have dropped by 76%. The report, prepared by several collaborators at the EU's Joint Research Centre (JRC), alongside the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim and Fraunhofer Institute, puts the cancellation of GMO projects down to the unclear regulatory framework and market situation. Major differences were also observed between the private and public sectors. Combined with low public acceptance – and understanding – of GM foods in Europe, this has led scientists and producers to be more cautious than usual.
Some 65% of all GMO field trials during the period under investigation were carried out by multinationals and more financially robust research teams, according to the report entitled 'Review of GMOs under research and development and in the pipeline in Europe'. Small and medium-sized companies performed a mere 6% of the field trials, with the rest left to public research institutes and universities.
Catch up time
The rest of the world has not been waiting for Europe to make up its mind about GMOs. In 2002, the area used for growing genetically modified plants world-wide has increased to almost 60 million hectares. Co-author of the Commission report, Dr Klaus Menrad of the Fraunhofer Institute, was quoted as saying that the pipeline is full of products that European companies are ready to produce or plant.
"The longer the moratorium goes on in Europe, the more likely it is that biotech companies will move their research to countries outside the European Union," he said.
But progress has already been made. Following an EU directive in October last year, GMOs can again be tested. Producers will first concentrate on herbicide-tolerant plants and on strengthening plant resistance to insects and diseases. Plants with health-promoting substances for, say, human food consumption are not expected until the next decade, notes the Fraunhofer Institute in a recent press statement.
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