BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - In the time-honored European Parliament tradition of seeing both sides of a question, the pro-biotechnology industry stance of the Parliament's Committee on Industry has been counterbalanced by a more cautious view from the Parliament committee responsible for environment, public health and consumer policy.

Drafted by Swedish left-winger Jonas Sjösted, this alternative view expresses concern "about the increased concentration of biotechnology research in a few very large corporations," and argues that patent rights should be subordinated to the public interest.

"Patents have been too freely granted," his report says. The definition of what may be patented "should be more precisely and narrowly drawn." In his view, patents on genes, animals and plants, "as well as those which are too vague or far-reaching" - which "can hinder research and should be avoided" - should be "outlawed." Only patents on techniques and applications should be allowed.

Sjösted urged state action to protect smaller firms and nonprofit organizations, and to ensure strong, independent and publicly funded research. He insisted that the promise of biotechnology "can be realized only if public concerns over safety, ethics and social justice are addressed." He wants more research into "the risks of biotechnology and possible ways to avoid these risks." He also notes "significant opposition to GM crops," and calls for protection of the right to genetic confidentiality. Genetic profiling, his report says, should never be "grounds for refusing insurance or employment or for any purpose, which is unethical, socially divisive or otherwise undesirable."

In a genuflection to the growing power of the animal rights lobby in Brussels, his report also urges the EU to "maintain their commitment to reducing the use of animals in medical experiments as rapidly as possible, inter alia by ensuring that biotechnology's potential to develop alternative testing techniques is fully exploited, while the development of new animal-based testing methods in pursuit of biotechnological research should be allowed only when no alternatives can be found and where the benefits are clear and substantial."

Biotechnology in agriculture presents more problems than in medicine, he said. It offers fewer demonstrated potential benefits, but poses "possible threats to human health." Scientific evidence over GMO safety "is contradictory and expert opinion divided, especially in relation to the difficulties of ascertaining possible long-term effects." Instead, he urged EU authorities to outlaw techniques that could pose a threat to health or the environment, including the use of antibiotic-resistant genes that could spread into the environment.

The final outcome of the Parliament reflections on the future of the pharmaceutical industry will be a blend of the Sjösted report and a separate strongly supportive report. When Parliament reaches an overall view - expected in the spring - it will have a political influence on many of the other ongoing discussions about biotechnology at the EU level.