BRUSSELS, Belgium - The continuing debate in Europe over whether to clamp down on biotechnology because of its alleged risks is provoking the European biotechnology industry into energetic efforts to defend the sector and its future.
EuropaBio, the European association of bioindustries, has come out strongly against attempts by some European Union (EU) countries to impose a freeze on approvals for new genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
EuropaBio said it "deplores" recent statements by some member states that they will not approve new GMOs until the underlying EU directive has been modified.
"We firmly believe that for the European public to gain confidence in these innovative and beneficial products, the European regulatory process needs clear and consistent pathways to be followed for approval of GMOs," said Anthony Arke, EuropaBio's secretary general. He added that EU ministers still had "not made the necessary steps toward the creation of a really transparent regulatory process."
EuropaBio came up with its own solution to what is turning into something close to anarchy in the European regulation of biotechnology products - with EU member state governments openly opposing EU decisions on biotechnology, and with activists being greeted with public applause in the UK for destroying GMO crop trials. The industry association is suggesting the creation of a European centralized system that could ensure consumer reassurance for the approval of biotechnology products - along the lines of the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products in London, which gives approvals for pharmaceutical products.
Meanwhile, EuropaBio insisted genetically modified products that have been placed on the market so far "are safe for human and animal health and for the environment, as they have been subjected to rigorous risk assessments and science-based safety reviews by independent regulatory authorities around the world."
EuropaBio also is fighting a high-profile public campaign to put its own spin on the June report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service on the adoption of GMO seed technology on cotton, maize and soybeans in the U.S. Shortly after the report was issued, EuropaBio claimed the report offered scientific confirmation that genetically modified crops could produce higher yields and significantly reduce the use of pesticides.
Now the industry association is publicly contesting a conflicting interpretation of the report, prominently displayed in the London newspaper The Independent under the headline, "Modified crops do not yield more."
EuropaBio used in its argument an update from the U.S. Agriculture Department that was put out "to clarify misinterpretations and confusion reported" with the original release of the data.
EuropaBio approvingly cited part of the update's summary: "Statistically controlling for factors other than adoption of genetically engineered seeds allows an understanding of the likely impacts of marginal changes in adoption on yields, profits, and pesticide use. Impacts vary with the crop and technology examined. Increases in adoption of herbicide-tolerant cotton were associated with significant increases in yields and variable profits, but were not associated with significant changes in herbicide use. Increases in adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans were associated with small increases in yields and variable profits and significant decreases in herbicide use. Increases in adoption of Bt cotton resistant to insects in the Southeast were associated with significant increases in yields and profits and decreased insecticide use."
EuropaBio also is giving plenty of circulation to another more favorable view of its position, which appeared in The Independent in July as a contribution from a leading UK academic, Alan Ryan. Ryan, who chaired a working party for the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to look at the regulations governing introducing genetically modified food plants into Britain, wrote: "Genetically modified crops have replaced paedophilia as the focus for public panic. Thus far, neither government, nor press, nor the consumer and environmental lobby has emerged with credit."
Ryan was particularly scathing about the concept of "the precautionary principle," which is repeatedly invoked by EU authorities to justify tight controls on biotechnology. He said the concept needs rethinking. "If it means we may never do anything that might go wrong, we'd never get the car out of the garage," he said. "If it only means we ought to be careful, it has no bite - nobody ever advocates thoughtlessly blundering ahead. Somewhere in between lies good sense."
Ryan also rejected the widespread suggestion that biotechnology was a key factor in destroying the agricultural environment. "Environmental damage done by industrialized farming should be tackled by rebuilding the subsidy regime - Europe's Common Agricultural Policy is the target, not genetically modified crops," he said.
Ryan also defended industry innovation: "Consumers certainly ought to know what they are eating," he said, in reference to the current debates over labeling and consumer choice. But he points out, "When they were offered genetically modified tomato paste that was less watery and cheaper, they bought it."
He also expressed confidence in the good sense of the industry. "Monsanto may or may not be greedy, but if its managers are rational, they won't destroy the business by poisoning the customer - hundreds of millions of whom have been eating genetically modified soya for several years - or by producing seeds that have no advantages over those from conventional breeders," Ryan wrote.