BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The hard-pressed European biotechnology industry is itself hoping for two shots in the arm this week from European Union institutions.

After suffering what its executives describe as years of official indifference and even neglect from the EU authorities, the industry could receive a boost when the European Parliament gives its final view Thursday on a largely complimentary report on the biotechnology industry. And today, details are expected on new initiatives from the European Commission to improve the environment for the biotechnology industry.

The draft text before the Parliament is the report on the future of the biotechnology industry, which Scottish Euro-MP John Purvis has piloted through the Parliament's complex consultative structure over the past six months. The Parliament's industry committee, which sponsored the report, is strongly in favor of the industry, and strongly critical of government measures to block or delay authorization of genetically modified products for reasons not based on objective scientific opinion. It urges EU support for biotechnology research as a realistic path toward reducing agricultural, environmental and health problems, particularly in developing countries.

The tone is set by the opening sentences of the report: "Europe has a long and distinguished history in the application of biotechnology, which (thanks to recent dramatic scientific advances) has been singled out as an industry with great potential for renewed growth, wealth creation and employment - key aims of the union. Biotechnology has the potential to improve quality of life through medical applications, for improved food and a cleaner environment. It could also help the EU meet environmental emissions targets. In a knowledge-driven economy, this is one industry that turns ideas into products."

At issue in the debate Thursday is how much of the broadly supportive tone of the draft text will be retained by the Parliament, and how far it will be diluted by last-minute amendments from the Parliament's biotechnology critics. The draft text already makes numerous concessions to skeptics, in a bid to head off outright opposition in the final vote. The draft contains calls for obligatory mutagenicity, carcinogenicity and toxicity tests to be carried out on transgenic foods before they are placed on the market, and insists on extensive information to the public about any risks, and tighter rules on labeling of GM organisms, with only the most limited room for exceptions. And it says developing countries should be involved in deciding on EU biotechnology research programs, and all EU citizens should have the chance to express their views on the merits of biotechnology.

But Purvis is aiming for a strong endorsement of the industry from Parliament. "The EU risks being left behind and becoming a customer of others. We may even lose the industry altogether," he warned at the Parliament's crucial plenary session, in Strasbourg, France, that opened Monday. Losing the biotechnology industry "would have a knock-on effect on other industries, most notably the key pharmaceutical industry, where biotech is likely to become the growth area for the future," he went on. "Already there are signs of emigration by companies involved in seeds and plants due to the negative attitude in Europe to GM crops. Action is required from member states and the EU to create the right environment for the industry to prosper."

The European commissioner for Enterprise, Finland's Erkki Liikanen, also is planning to come to the industry's aid. He will present an outline action plan to his colleagues in the European Commission, which will aim to counterbalance some of the negative influence on the industry from the current regulatory confusion.

One of his key advisers, Per Haugaard, told BioWorld International that the commissioner was determined to do something effective to boost the European biotechnology industry. "At present," he said, "responsibility for biotechnology is widely split among different parts of the EU institutions, and there is a need for a coherent approach."

Liikanen has won praise for his active support for the information technology sector in Europe, and there is expectation among biotechnology industry executives that this partisan of high technology may help break the current regulatory logjam that impedes the industry's longer-term planning, a senior European industry figure said.

Liikanen said he plans to "shape a strategic vision for biotechnology." In the run-up to the summit of the 15 EU heads of government in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 23-24, he has won support from the Commission as a whole for the preparation of a new EU strategy for biotechnology, which will be finalized by the end of 2001. The aim is to ensure that Europe "reaps the full benefits of biotechnology's potentially huge contributions to economic growth, social development and environmental protection," he said Tuesday.