BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - A group of senior European businessmen and academics have delivered a searing condemnation of the inadequacies of Europe's political commitment to biotechnology.

The Competitiveness in Biotechnology Advisory Group, an official body appointed by the European Union in 2003, said that the public and politicians still fail to understand what is at stake in European discussions of biotechnology. It complains of "a negative spiral of excessive precaution that is undermining entrepreneurship and therefore the competitiveness of the sector in Europe." And it blames Europe's confusions over GM crops for the continued negative environment for biotechnology in general.

Unfortunately, Europe still has not resolved underlying questions about the merits of biotechnology, said the group's report, recently submitted to EU officials as input to the early 2007 review of European policy on life sciences and biotechnology. "Europe is still handicapped by the biotechnology debate being so focused on genetically modified plants, influenced by the thought of potential but unproven risk in the absence of obvious benefits," it said.

The group fears that a polarized debate will continue as long as GM crops are not widely grown in Europe. "It is easy to claim risks and dangers in the absence of familiarity and positive experience by farmers and consumers," it said. "Politicians are still hesitating and wondering about whether to deal with the new challenges, instead of putting appropriate policies in place."

The report expresses regret that the development of an extensive set of EU rules and regulations "has not convinced decision makers that GMOs are fully acceptable for food or feed," and it claims that hesitancy presents an obstacle to other biotechnology initiatives - such as growing optimized crops for non-food use such as biofuels.

The group of experts calls for an extension of patent protection to compensate for regulatory delays, and for energetic efforts to demonstrate the merits of biotechnology to a skeptical public. "One of the major challenges is the difficulty in seeing biotechnology' in the product on the market," the group suggested, since consumers see a biomedicine only as medicine, a bioplastic as just plastic and biofuel as just fuel. The invisibility of the technology, and the consequent lack of recognition for existing uses, acts against the interests of biotechnology, the experts said. The risks of new technology often are overestimated, leading to unnecessary increases in safeguards, and thus "inhibiting the development of new technology in young and fragile industries."

Rules Change For Pediatric Medicines

European Union ministers signed off Monday on a new regulation on medicines for pediatric use. The regulation aims to ensure that medicines used to treat children have been the subject of ethical high-quality research and appropriate clinical trials. It creates a combination of obligations and incentives. A pediatric investigation plan will have to be submitted as part of the procedure for obtaining market authorization, while incentives including extension of exclusive rights are designed to promote and assist research.

EuropaBio Backs Biorefineries Initiative

The European biotech industry association EuropaBio has come out strongly in support of a European Union initiative to promote development of biorefineries in Europe. The European Conference on Biorefinery Research, in Helsinki, Finland, Oct. 20-21, focused on the industrial perspectives and opportunities of current and future biorefineries, and provided a technical review of the state of the art for biomass fractionation and conversion technologies.

EuropaBio insists that biorefineries are a key element of a bio-based economy that can reduce dependence on fossil fuels for energy and industrial raw materials. "Biorefineries use renewable raw materials to produce energy and a wide range of everyday products in an economically viable manner," said Jack Huttner, chairman of the Industrial Biotechnology Council of EuropaBio.

Pressure Increases On GMO Imports

European Union ministers returned to the troubled subject of imports of unauthorized GMOs at their Environment Council meeting Monday. Belgium, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Poland demanded urgent discussions among the EU's expert committees on how to prevent further contamination, through concrete preventive actions, including adequate checking methods. The same day, the EU's principal committee of member state experts on food backed tougher measures for testing all imports of U.S. long-grain rice for unauthorized GMOs. The measures are being taken in response to findings four weeks ago of LLRICE601 in shipments of U.S. long-grain rice, which had been certified as free from that unauthorized GMO. The decision follows the failure to reach agreement with U.S. authorities on a common sampling and testing protocol.

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