BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Parliament's Committee on Industry agreed to call for strong support for the biotechnology industry, at a meeting in Brussels last week. The draft report is scheduled for final discussion in the European Parliament's next plenary meeting in Strasbourg, France, on March 15.

The committee adopted the report on the future of the biotechnology industry in the European Union, drawn up for it by UK Conservative Euro-MP John Purvis. But the discussion was far from straightforward, and the outcome provided less unconditional support than Purvis' early draft. The committee debated 183 draft amendments to the report, and adopted 54 of them, indicating how sensitive a topic biotechnology remains in the EU.

Many of the draft amendments demonstrated the strength of underlying concerns in the EU over biotechnology. They are full of warnings of "unpredictable long-term effects"; "environmental risks"; calls for biotechnology research "to be given an ethical dimension because of the implications it may have, in particular, for the field of genetics"; accusations that the "industry so far lacks proof of being without risk to health and environment"; and that "increased concentration of biotechnology research in a few very large corporations is to the detriment of the sector as a whole."

Inveterate biotechnology skeptic Nuala Aherne, a Green group Euro-MP from Ireland, urged that "the policy of encouraging high-tech knowledge-based industries should be applied and limited to those areas and applications of biotechnology which promise serious benefits and do not have adverse effects on human health and the environment."

The text agreed to still shows plenty of support for the industry's positions. It is critical of EU government measures to block or delay authorization of genetically modified products for reasons not based on objective scientific opinion. It calls for the new European Food Safety Authority, which is being established, to restore consumer confidence and reduce international disputes. The new authority should have overall responsibility for the approval of GM products, the report says.

But there are calls for greater caution, too. The committee calls for obligatory mutagenicity, carcinogenicity and toxicity tests to be carried out on transgenic foods before they are placed on the market. In their report, Euro-MPs also stress the importance of informing the public about safety checks and the extent of any risk. The committee urges member states and the European Commission to organize public fora on biotechnology in order to discuss issues relating to biotechnology in such a way that all viewpoints are respected. The report emphasizes the right of EU citizens to information and calls on the Commission to lay down more comprehensive rules on the labeling of GM organisms and to allow exceptions only where they are technically unavoidable.

The committee calls on the Commission and the member states to support research into biotechnological applications offering clear social or environmental benefits, such as the development of genetically modified microorganisms for use in water purification, soil restoration, replacing dangerous chemicals currently in use, and developing sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources including biogas, hydrogen and ethanol. The committee says it is convinced that biotechnology can help reduce agricultural, environmental and health problems in developing countries and therefore considers that these countries should be encouraged to develop their own biotech industries. The report also backs the principle of involving developing countries in deciding priorities for relevant EU research programs and in trade debates.