BRUSSELS, Belgium Science, business and regulation predominated among the 120 presentations at the European biotechnology industry¿s second annual mega-conference, EuropaBio ¿98, which took place in Brussels Oct. 27 through Oct. 30. But while more than 500 delegates from industry, academia, government and consumers debated licensing strategies, novel food labeling and functional plant genomics, the recurrent theme was the perennial problem of biotechnology¿s negative image among the public at large.
Anthony Arke, secretary general of the European industry¿s lobby organization, EuropaBio, highlighted the need for clear messages to be conveyed to the public about biotech¿s advantages. In his closing speech to the meeting, he suggested that the ¿increased convergence¿ of the public¿s evident desires for high-quality food, high-quality health care and a healthy planet could be turned to advantage, ensuring constructive discussions right across the sector on how to maximize biotechnology¿s contribution. But a press release the same day from EuropaBio candidly admitted that ¿industry has been slow off the mark in communicating with the general public.¿
Arke told BioWorld International after the meeting that the prospects for the biotech industry in Europe are excellent ¿in principle. We have the best universities, and capital is available [despite some hesitation in the market], so it is important that regulations become based on sound scientific grounds.¿ But all this potential is at stake ¿because biotech has become a political problem for governments and for non-governmental organizations,¿ he said.
Opponents of biotechnology find it easy to ¿scare the public by saying, They¿re changing your genes,¿¿ Arke said. And just when consumer concern over the risks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (¿mad cow¿ disease) was peaking, ¿along came Dolly, the cloned sheep, which generated a lot of media coverage but no understanding,¿ Arke said. This new level of concern ¿affected the European Com mission, which became weak, and affected some governments, too,¿ which were inevitably dependent on public support, Arke said.
The result is that there are concerns over biotechnology ¿at the political level, which is becoming a sort of disease in Europe,¿ Arke said. He recognized the wide range of outstanding regulatory issues in Europe including delays in updating European Union (EU) rules on product release, challenges to the new EU patent rules for better protection of biotech products, conflicts over novel food labeling, and open warfare within the EU institutions over the marketing of genetically modified crops. And the tensions over some of the issues are running high. Arke paid tribute to the Brussels police ¿for their preventive security measures¿ which averted the extravagant attacks that environmentalist groups have mounted in protest at similar meetings in Europe. Last year¿s EuropaBio conference was disrupted by Greenpeace dumping tons of soy beans at its entrance. As an industry, ¿we are losing out¿ as long as these problems remain unresolved, Arke said.
EuropaBio, Arke said, has the answer. ¿We must explain to the public in common language what we intend to do, in order to get a more healthy planet,¿ he said. In the plant biotechnology area, EuropaBio has just proposed an agrifood initiative to the European Commission, Arke said. ¿We are offering to be more transparent to the commission, to provide the commission with more information and to help translate it into a language that people can understand.¿ He said the industry must ¿assist commission leadership in debate¿ of the issues but ¿that means we must open up more, too.¿ Arke proposed that a ¿group of wise men¿ should meet every year, bringing together top industrialists with European commissioners to look at biotechnology and identify ¿politically possible actions.¿
Meanwhile, EuropaBio has upgraded its own communications work, appointing a new manager and developing enhanced coordination with the national biotechnology associations in its membership. It is also introducing new educational programs and planning deeper and wider relations with the media. Arke said he is optimistic that all these efforts will have their results. ¿We will get there sooner rather than later, and then [the European industry] will develop very fast faster than in the U.S.,¿ he predicted.
Public perception was also the focus of Carl Feldbaum, president of the U.S.¿s Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), who was a keynote speaker at EuropaBio ¿98. ¿The real problem for a sector liable to high-profile coverage in the media is to operate in a society which is not educated in science,¿ Feldbaum told BioWorld International. ¿This needs to be done with sensitivity, credibility and imagination if the industry is to realize an optimistic scenario,¿ he said. And, he went on, the problem of negative image is more serious in Europe than in the U.S. ¿The EU has more inherent resistance to science and new technologies,¿ he said. So there is a need for major efforts ¿to connect with local populations¿ through actions aimed at schools or at regional media, and through contacts at the grass-roots level as well as at the top.
Feldbaum said he believes Europe has a challenge to meet in other respects, too, to realize its biotech potential: ¿Europe has had the disadvantage of cultural traditions to overcome or accommodate,¿ he said. ¿There is not a tradition of risk-taking among PhDs,¿ so they still tend to leave top schools to go to large firms, and they tend not to switch companies as a matter of course. ¿At BIO, I have members of my board who have fired one another in the past,¿ Feldbaum noted.
Regulatory decisions in Europe are still made according to a different calculation of risk, as well, with Europe ready to consider a wide range of influences, said Feldbaum. ¿Germany, the U.K. and France deal with biotech differently, and it is part of the EU system that non-science views become involved in the decision-making process,¿ Feldbaum said. By contrast, U.S. regulatory agencies ¿have largely determined they will be science-based and will not take into account the subjective views of other parts of the population,¿ he said.