BioWorld International Correspondent
BRUSSELS, Belgium - Peter Mandelson, European commissioner for trade, and Europe's principal player in the World Trade Organization Doha trade talks, delivered an outspoken defense of biotechnology June 14.
"Biotechnology is a critical part of the world's economic and environmental future," he said. He backed up his support with sharp criticism of unjustified opposition to the technology.
His strong endorsement of biotechnology was greeted with relief by senior European industry figures, who are well aware that Mandelson is a powerful figure within the European Union.
In particular, his insistence on scientific rigor and credible regulatory systems was welcomed by an industry repeatedly under attack from both the public and politicians.
The commissioner's remarks went way beyond where many other European leaders have dared to tread. He reminded European politicians of their duty to provide a lead to their citizens in what was becoming an "impossibly polarized debate."
"We must not allow the positive argument for biotech to be lost because public authorities and governments are sometimes afraid or unable to make the case to their citizens. That is not the leadership the public has the right to expect," he added.
In the wake of repeated refusals by many European countries to allow market access to biotech products that have received EU authorizations, he was explicit in his denunciation of failings in Europe's regulatory record. "Those whose job it is to manage risk are right to be thorough. But it is also reasonable to insist that when the process has run its course, and the scientific issues have been thrashed out, we stand by the science. And that applies to both the technical experts and to the politicians they report to. A rigorous system means approving GM imports when the science is on their side, just as we take a firm line when precaution is justified."
Recognizing the challenge in communicating the outcome of complex scientific assessments, he pointed out how harmful it was when European countries acted arbitrarily. "If politicians and risk managers undermine their own system it becomes almost impossible. We devalue objective science as our most important benchmark - and that is a dangerous step to take."
Mandelson warned that Europe would suffer if it fell behind because of ill-conceived hesitations. "As others around the world move ahead - in the United States and Japan, but also the emerging economies - we in Europe must also play a leading role in a sector that will play such an important role in tomorrow's economy," he said.
The European Union's biofuel strategy would not be possible without industrial biotechnology, he said, and "it is simply not responsible or defensible calmly to refuse to assess the role of GM food" in meeting the rise in demand for food and animal feed.
"Unless we can close the gap between GMO approvals in the EU and in feed-exporting countries such as the U.S., Argentina and Brazil, we may have hungry cows and struggling farmers," he added.
During Mandelson's term of office, the EU's uneven record on biotech already has been subject to numerous attacks for breaching international trade rules.
In the course of his address, he openly conceded, "If we fail to implement our own rules, or implement them inconsistently, we can - and probably will - be challenged."
Mandelson emphasized that there should be "no illusion that Europe's interests are served by being outside a global market that is steadily working its way through the issues raised by GM food. They are not."