BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ The European Union has launched a major public consultation on life sciences and biotechnology in another bid to break through the negative prejudice that still handicaps the European biotechnology industry.

¿The union needs a coherent forward-looking policy toward life sciences and biotechnology,¿ the European Commission said early this month as it announced the new campaign, which it hopes will open up the chances of success for a policy initiative planned for later this year to take account of the ethical, social and economic issues that life sciences and biotechnology generate.

A consultation document, titled ¿Towards a strategic vision of life sciences and biotechnology,¿ provides an overview of the issues linked to the biotechnology. In late September, the Commission is hosting a conference bringing together a range of interested parties, with the intention of ¿driving forward a broad and constructive public debate on biotechnology in Europe.¿ The Commission is even establishing a new web site with a public comment forum to foster the debate.

European Commission President Romano Prodi said the consultation ¿should help us all develop coherent approaches that meet our fundamental objectives and concerns. We want to hear in particular from the ultimate decision makers ¿ the citizens, consumers and patients.¿ But he warned that in ¿this crucial policy area¿ there was a need for better understanding all around.

Behind the EU initiative is the conviction that biotechnology will lead to indispensable new products and techniques that Europe will not want to live without, but if Europe itself is not capable of providing them, then they will have to be imported. Encouragement is needed for European biotechnology firms to expand, says the Commission, whose diagnosis is that Europe¿s corporate regulations and fiscal frameworks need to become more flexible in order to allow for the development of commercial biotechnology without undue constraint.

Meanwhile, strong demand for life scientists outside Europe has stimulated a significant brain drain, because Europe has insufficient commercial biotechnology activity in comparison to academic activity. The key, the Commission suggests, is to back biotechnology ¿clusters¿ in science parks and university and technology centers with strong links to finance and marketing skills.

And at the level of the public and of officials, it is ¿important¿ to learn more about the potential of biotechnology, to ensure its safe development and use, and to better understand how the technological potential may actually be realized in concrete socio-economic contexts. As the Commission puts it, with uncharacteristic bluntness: ¿Who will benefit, are there losers and what is society¿s role in steering developments?¿

EU Pressures Mount For Human Cloning Ban

The European Union has taken no official stance on plans by Italian doctor Severino Antinori to clone a human being, but unofficial pressures are growing for a ban. France and Germany are pushing for a United Nations convention banning human cloning for reproductive purposes, and have asked for the issue to be added to the agenda for the 56th session of the UN General Assembly, to be held Sept. 19-21 in New York. And some EU officials and experts have been suggesting off the record over recent weeks that human cloning is contrary to European ethical principles, and looking at how the EU could support the Franco-German initiative.

What European experts are mulling over is how to create a sound international legal framework at the same time as progress in the life sciences offers promising developments for improving health. The Franco-German request speaks of the need to ¿take suitable steps to avoid any dangerous problems whose implications for humanity would be impossible to predict.¿ It invokes the universal declaration on the human genome and human rights adopted by the UN educational body, UNESCO, in 1997, and approved in 1998 by the UN, which specifies that human cloning is an offense to human dignity, without being legally binding.

GMO Labeling Proposals Under Attack

The European Union¿s July proposals on the traceability of genetically modified foods and the labeling of food and feed derived from genetically modified organisms are ¿unworkable,¿ according to the Confederation of the European Food and Drinks Industry.

The agri-industry lobby said the proposed new rules ¿raise serious concerns as regards proportionality, workability, practicability and enforceability of their provisions.¿ It argues that ¿the objective of reassuring consumers will not be achieved because labeling provisions will be difficult to enforce and to control.¿ Moreover, ¿EU industry will face an increased burden and an important competitive disadvantage on a global level.¿

CIAA argues that ¿technology-based¿ labeling will lead to the labeling of products as ¿produced from GMOs but not containing GMOs¿ when they do not, in fact, contain any residual DNA or protein. The industry fears they will thus be ¿analytically indistinguishable from identity-preserved non-genetically-modified products.¿ Conversely, products that do contain modified DNA or protein ¿will not have to be labeled, provided their inclusion is accidental.¿ The CIAA also says that proposed changes to the current regulatory regime on the traceability of GM-derived food products ¿cannot be enforced or controlled in third countries.¿ It insists the traceability of foods and food ingredients should not be limited to GMOs but should be addressed in the context of food safety.

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