BioWorld International Correspondent
BRUSSELS, Belgium - Biotechnology is one of the priorities chosen by Denmark, which has just taken over the rotating presidency of the European Union until the end of this year. Denmark Minister for Economic and Business Affairs Bendt Bendtsen said in mid-July that his government wants to help the European biotechnology sector.
Speaking to the European Parliament's committee on research and industrial affairs in Brussels, he said, "The Danish presidency will bring into focus the use of biotechnology and bioscience."
The Danish objective is to strengthen what it terms "the knowledge-based economy" in Europe. Bendtsen spelled out the Danish government's support: "Biotechnology and bioscience are some of the driving forces behind future welfare and economic growth in Europe. If Europe is to be a global player in the biotech industry, a coordinated approach is needed." It is important, he said, that the EU's 30-point strategy for biotechnology, agreed earlier this year, is made operable. He said he wanted agreement among all member states by November on a "road map," specifying specific initiatives, a timetable, a list of priorities, and clear indications on "who is to do what."
The Danish presidency also is planning a major European conference on biotechnology. Bendtsen said he wants to make sure not only that developments take consumers' views into consideration, but also that there will be adequate education, research and development, innovation and investment in the biotech industry.
The Danish Presidency will work to promote the creating of a functioning EU patent system, including making progress with the proposed simplified EU patent scheme, intended to help smaller firms win protection at lower cost and greater speed. The proposal is currently blocked by some EU member states' insistence that applications must be presented in languages other than just English.
Improving Understanding of Biotechnology
Meanwhile, the European Union has been trying to find new ways of increasing public understanding of science - and particularly of biotechnology. On July 9, it organized a conference on life sciences and the media in Brussels, as a step toward overcoming the public indifference or hostility that still impedes creating an environment conducive to biotechnology development. As European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin told the scientists and media professionals at the meeting: "European citizens need to be informed of scientific progress, particularly in the fast-moving field of life sciences, to foster debate on the development of new products and technologies.
He cited misunderstandings, suspicion and hostility surrounding innovative products based on recombinant DNA technology, such as genetically modified crops, as an example. He acknowledged that the relationship between science and the media "is not always easy."
Also at the meeting, studies on science communication in Europe were proposed.
Slow Work On New Guidance On EU GMO Rules
Two new guidance notes on how to comply with the EU rules on biotechnology are emerging - with some difficulty - from the European Union. The proposed texts provide details of how the 2001 directive on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms into the environment should be implemented.
One aims to introduce a harmonized format for the summary notifications that a company has to supply to national and EU authorities when it wants to conduct research on genetically modified organisms. The other details plans to trace and identify any direct or indirect, immediate, delayed or unforeseen effects on human health or the environment caused by GMOs or products after they have been placed on the market.
The text provides a general framework for developing post-marketing monitoring plans. But the guidance already has run into trouble - the EU's own advisory committee on the deliberate release of GMOs failed to issue opinions on the drafts within the time frame allowed, because its members were unable to reach an agreement. France voted against both proposals - particularly elements relating to public access to information - while Belgian, German, Dutch and Austrian representatives abstained. Greek and Luxembourg delegates failed to turn up for the meeting.
EU Ratifies Cartagena Biosafety Protocol
The European Union ratified the January 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the first international legal framework for the cross-border movement of genetically modified organisms. The protocol is designed to protect biological diversity, and, in turn, human health, by providing better worldwide access to information on GMOs. It will establish a procedure that ensures countries are given the necessary information to make informed decisions on whether to import GMOs intended for introduction into the environment.
Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said: "This is a global issue, which needs global action. The Cartagena Protocol establishes one set of basic international rules for dealing with GMOs. The Protocol will ensure countries, exporters and importers have the necessary information to make informed choices about GMOs. This protocol will particularly help developing countries." One hundred and ten countries have signed the Cartagena Protocol and 20 have ratified it. Fifty ratifications are necessary for it to go into effect.