BRUSSELS, Belgium — The frequently expressed industry concerns that European Union (EU) rules hinder biotechnology development are getting a new airing in a surprising forum — the European Parliament, which so far has tended to take a more cautious view of the merits of biotechnology.

The parliament's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development heard an impassioned plea Monday from one of its own members for a better deal for European biotech. German Euro-MP Hedwig Keppelhoff-Wiechert prepared a report on the impact of biotechnology on agriculture that argues strongly for an easier regulatory and fiscal deal for innovators.

"The authorization procedure is substantially simpler in North America than it is in the EU," she said, and European industry suffers accordingly. "What is now being decided is whether Europe is to fall further behind in this global competition."

Her report urges the European Commission (EC) to re-examine the legal framework for biotechnology and genetic engineering with a view to harmonizing it with Japanese and U.S. legislation and developing common international standards. It calls on the EC to make authorization procedures more efficient and more predictable, by shortening examination periods, clarifying criteria and procedures, and standardizing fees for registration and testing. And it advocates expanded support to mobilize equity capital and offer tax incentives for biotechnology firms.

Biotech Called Key To Next Century

The report firmly asserts the merits of biotech in agriculture as "one of the key technologies of the 21st century which will make decisive contributions to feeding the world's population and ensuring that vital natural resources are used sparingly and sustainably."

It predicts that the value of the agro-biotechnology market in 2000 will be double its 1995 level in Europe — and 10 times its 1995 level in the U.S. But it goes on to warn that the European biotech industry may be cut out of that growing market if EU rules do not become more biotech-friendly.

The European industry is willing and able to take part in that growth, the draft report argues. Of the 6,000 release experiments with genetically modified organisms conducted around the world to date, for instance, 600 have taken place in EU member states. A total of 964 applications to conduct such outdoor experiments were submitted in Europe in 1996, mostly originating in France, followed by Italy, the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany.

In 1997, 161 outdoor experiments were being conducted with genetically modified plants in 71 locations in Germany, involving sugar beets, maize, potatoes, petunias, aspen trees, and tobacco and rape plants.

But whether the European industry will be permitted to take part in the growth remains open to question, said Keppelhoff-Wiechert. The antipathy to biotech is apparent in Europe even, literally, on the ground, and to date, she said, eight of these experiments have been destroyed. Consumers' opposition to genetically modified foodstuffs is influencing their purchasing behavior, she added, alleging that opponents of genetic engineering in many cases play on the fears of consumers. She even suggested that some opponents of biotech are motivated simply by the desire to maintain their lucrative lobby exercise.

The EU is unable to cope adequately with today's rapid technological developments, she complained, lamenting that the "pioneering spirit which is still to be found in the U.S. has given way here to a desire for the zero-risk option."

Scientists Should Engage Public More

But part of the blame must lie with the scientific community and the industry, she added. They have delayed taking a public position on the use of genetic engineering in food production, and are still doing so. Such negligence is culpable, she insisted.

"We are not only accountable for what we do, but also for what we do not do, a point which has until now been virtually ignored in the debate on genetic engineering," she said.

European skepticism will not stop this innovative technology from being used throughout the world, she observed. Agriculture and the food industry must therefore conduct an intensive, constructive and objective debate with the public on biotechnology and its applications.

The report, once it is adopted by Keppelhoff-Wiechert's committee, will go to the European Parliament as a whole for a definitive view on the subject, probably in the spring.