BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Parliament has given its formal backing to a call for the European Union (EU) to boost agricultural biotechnology.

The Parliament adopted a resolution in February at its last plenary session that fully endorses the recent upbeat report on the impact of biotechnology in farming from its Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. (See BioWorld International, Feb 4, 1998, p. 1.)

Given the customary caution of the Parliament toward biotechnology, this report - prepared by German Euro-MP Hedwig Keppelhoff-Wiechert - and its adoption by the Parliament as a whole gives an important positive signal to the European biotechnology sector.

The Parliament resolution carries the hallmark insistence on safety, but balances prudence with a certain sense of adventure. It urges that the potential of biotechnology be fully exploited, and calls for regulatory systems that will enable innovative and, at the same time, responsible development of biotechnology in Europe.

Biotechnology development needs financial backing, the resolution recognizes. It asks the European Commission and the member states to expand support programs designed to mobilize equity capital for biotechnology companies and to offer corresponding tax incentives.

It also asks for EU scientific research programs to focus more specifically on biotechnology and agricultural biotechnology, particularly in the upcoming Fifth Framework Research Programme, which is in the final stages of EU consultation.

This resolution will help condition the political climate within which future biotechnology legislation is discussed in the EU.

Unlike most European Parliament resolutions, this is not a comment on any current draft of legislation, but rather an own-initiative report on a subject the Parliament considers important. It will now be forwarded to the European Commission and its Council of Ministers.

The debate in the Parliament was not one-sided, however. There were some strong criticisms from Euro-MPs who remain deeply distrustful of biotechnology and the biotechnology industry.

U.K. socialist Shaun Spiers said the report was “too sanguine about the possibility of controlling biotechnology and about the part biotechnology could play in feeding the world. Biotechnology is being promoted by huge, inadequately controlled economic interests. The likelihood, at present, is that an expansion of biotechnology will serve those interests, not the environment and humanity.“

Strong Opposition Waning

But the fierce European Parliament opposition to biotechnology that showed itself in debates over the last few years appears to be slowly diminishing, and the number of Euro-MPs adopting a fundamentalist negativism toward the sector is dwindling to a small minority.

The European biotechnology debate is becoming more nuanced. So, for instance, in response to continuing consumer concerns over genetically engineered food, the resolution asks the European Commission to ensure that genetically engineered products are clearly labeled, in order to achieve maximum transparency and to restore consumer confidence. And as a gesture toward the ecology movement that is still strong within the Parliament, it also includes a request for a research program on promotion of information on green biotechnology.

The Parliament debate is shifting from outright condemnation to a more reasoned reflection on what can be done constructively, and how the population's anxieties can be assuaged.

Allan Gillis, of Ireland, said, “More than half of European citizens are opposed to the release and marketing of genetically modified foods. I believe the vast majority holds this view because of the influence of scare stories and theories which are completely without scientific foundation. The full benefits of biotechnology will not be manifest unless public trust and approval are first secured.“

Martin Philippe Armand, of France, added, “To win this battle, Europe must better inform consumers, explain to them, and reassure them with reliable and scientifically proved arguments.“ *