Why green biotech scientists need to 'come out of the lab'

October 13, 2006

Brussels, 12 Oct 2006

Biotechnology still has a great deal to offer the agricultural sector, but more needs to be done to help the public understand the benefits of 'green biotechnologies'. This was the main message from a public hearing on the prospects and challenges for biotechnology in European agriculture, held in the European Parliament on 10 October.

The assembled experts outlined some of the advantages biotechnology offers to the agricultural sector. These range from pest resistant crops and crops with enhanced nutritional values to trees with shorter generation times.

However, the 'green' (agricultural) sector in Europe still suffers from a relatively poor public image. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that while Europeans' attitude towards technology is generally positive, they remain largely sceptical of the value of genetically modified organisms. Much of this can be explained by the fact that people are only aware of the risks of GMOs, and do not see the benefits they offer. Most of the speakers noted that more information and education is needed to help the public understand the positive side of biotechnology in the agriculture sector. 'Scientists have a responsibility to come out of the lab,' commented Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness.

David Hill is a farmer from Norfolk in the UK. He has been involved in trials of genetically modified sugar beet, and found he had to spray the GM crop less often, meaning his crop had a lower impact on the environment. He told CORDIS News that when they understand the issues, most people are quickly won over. 'When I explain it to people, most people say, 'what's the problem, why are we arguing about it?',' he said.

Ewen Mullins of the Teagasc Crops Research Centre in Ireland has had a similar experience. 'Consumers can't see the clear benefits of GM crops,' he commented in the hearing. 'But when I explain the benefits they are surprised and encouraged.'

However, while education and information will undoubtedly help the public to form a more informed opinion about GMOs, this will take time. Meanwhile, both consumers and many farmers will continue to demand GMO free products and seeds. Developing co-existence strategies for GM- and non-GM crops is extremely complicated. Some crops can coexist more easily than others, but much of the data on issues such as how far pollen can travel is still disputed.

There are also questions over who should pay for co-existence measures, and who should have the burden of proving that a product is 'GM free'. In addition, stakeholders are calling for attention to be paid to the rest of the processing chain, such as transport and storage.

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