BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The leaders of the European Union reached another fine-sounding agreement on the merits of biotechnology when they met at their spring summit in Brussels on Friday. Amid their squabbling over what line to take on Iraq, prime ministers and presidents of the 15 member states found time to look yet again at the problems preventing European biotechnology from fulfilling its potential.

The member states should be "pursuing actively the agreed roadmap on biotechnology and rapidly finalizing and implementing the necessary legislation," the EU's top politicians reiterated in their summit conclusions. The official agenda for the summit, before Iraq derailed the discussions, was what the EU calls "building a knowledge-based economy" through tapping new sources of growth, increasing investment and creating "the innovation needed to underpin competitiveness." It is all part of a strategy the EU adopted two years ago to turn Europe into a world-beating high-technology economy by 2010, and EU leaders recognize that biotechnology is one of the trump cards in the EU's hand - if it can learn how to play it.

So the conclusions again urged member states to take concrete action to promote increased business investment in R&D and innovation, to bring it up to an average of 3 percent of GDP. They summit issued another call for "developing human resources in science and technology, and the setting up as a mechanism for taking stock of the progress achieved and assessing its efficiency," and spoke of "creating European technology platforms bringing together technological know-how, industry, regulators and financial institutions to develop a strategic agenda for leading technologies, in areas such as plant genomics."

Meanwhile, the EU is plodding forward with related pieces of legislation. The European Parliament's committee on environment and public health is at last scheduled to adopt a draft position later this week on the EU proposal for quality and safety standards for human tissues and cells. The proposal seeks to strengthen the requirements related to the suitability of donors and the screening of donated substances of human origin in the EU, and to establish rules ensuring the traceability of tissues and cells of human origin. It will then go on to the full Parliament next month, before going back to EU ministers for further examination. So agreement is still at least a year away.

And next month the committee will look again at the draft new rules on transboundary movement of GMOs, where Parliament and EU ministers are largely in agreement, but where the EU Commission says it will not accept some of the changes being sought in its proposal.

There is some hope that the final stages are being reached on the draft new EU rules on GMO traceability and labeling. Ministers last week adopted their agreed-to position on the proposals. Now they will go back to the Parliament this week for a second reading. So these could be approved within weeks, thus filling one of the gaps in the EU biotechnology regulatory framework.

EuropaBio Concerned By EU Biotech Report

EuropaBio, the European biotechnology lobbying organization, welcomed the official confirmation that European Union rules are hurting the European biotechnology industry. Commenting on the report issued last week by the EU's joint research center, EuropaBio said, "These latest figures must be seen as cause for concern." (See BioWorld International, March 19, 2003.)

EuropaBio highlighted the findings that plant biotechnology research has dropped in the EU by 76 percent since 1998, pointing out that "the report attributes this fall mainly to EU environment ministers' decision in 1999 to block any new approvals of genetically modified products in Europe." Simon Barber, director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit at EuropaBio, said, "The findings clearly indicate that Europe is likely to become an importer of plant biotechnology rather than a developer.

"Without research, innovation suffers. Europe cannot allow investment in research on plant biotechnology to wither. This is a very significant technology allowing benefits in sustainable agriculture not seen since the Green Revolution," Barber said. "Plant biotechnology must be developed in Europe for EU farmers. This will help increase competitiveness in this area while promoting sustainable agriculture benefiting all EU citizens, and in turn impact favorably on growth and jobs in Europe."