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Is European Union Really Anti-Genetic Engineering?
Prof. C. Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

Ignoring a number of pro-genetic engineering (GE) developments in the European Union (EU), anti-tech activists assert that the EU has closed its doors to GE, but facts speak otherwise.


Despite a very vehement and active anti-tech propaganda, the European Commission (EC) has approved over 190 GE crops for field-testing during the past three years.   In 2006 it self, the EC has approved 98 GE crops for field-testing in Spain (38), France (19), Germany (10), Hungary (7), Portugal (5), Sweden (4), Czech Republic (3), Poland (3), Denmark (2) and Ireland (1). The traits include herbicide tolerance, pest tolerance, high enzyme levels, high yield, photosynthetic efficiency, explosive detection and others, in transgenic corn, potato, rye, rapeseed, cotton, tobacco, flax and sugar beet.  Both public institutions and biotech corporations are involved in developing these transgenics. 


The EU had imposed a de facto moratorium in 1998 on GE crops and foods, under pressure from anti-tech lobbies.   Europe also has very strict labeling rules.  The World Trade Organization (WTO) has now ruled that the EU, by an effective ban on biotech foods, breached its commitments with respect to 21 products, including oilseed rape, maize and cotton.   WTO held that Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg, violated international trade rules.  The EU lifted the moratorium in 2004 and ever since has approved the import of about 25 GE corn varieties for use as feed, to be in line with its WTO obligations.


The EC issued guidelines for the development of strategies and practices to ensure the co-existence of conventional and GE crops and organic farming. A meeting on June 20, 2006, in Helsinki, by the Finnish and Austrian Governments in collaboration with the European Commission Directorate General Research, Joint Research Center (http://bio4eu.jrc.es/), discussed ’Consequences, opportunities and challenges of modern biotechnology for Europe’.   Issues such as competitiveness, the impacts of biotechnology, regulation of biotechnology and public perceptions of biotechnology, were on the agenda.  


The French Government (June 7, 2006) has licensed two sites for GE crops to produce pharmaceuticals ahead of legislation to deal with crop contamination and liability. Two out of 17 new test sites involve GE maize and tobacco to produce pharmaceuticals.

The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality  (March 31, 2006) agreed to pay Euros 9.9 million, to the Wageningen University to develop a GE potato with resistance to late blight.  The Dutch government has also issued over 30 licenses for field trials of biotech crops in 2006, of which five relate to GE potatoes, one to GE apples, and one to GE carnation.  


Greenpeace is charged under section 306 of the criminal code of the Danish Terror Law (May 12, 2006) over a protest action against GM Crops, a lot more serious action than individual fine.   An amendment of the terror package by the Danish parliament made it now possible to charge the entire Greenpeace organization for the conduct of a few activists.

On June 27, 2006, a French Court of appeal convicted 49 activists for destroying a crop of GM maize, quashing an earlier court ruling. 


The Commission on Green Biotechnology is a constituent of the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities.   The InterAcademy Panel (IAP), a worldwide network of 92 Academies of Sciences, with its Secretariat in Trieste/Italy, advises citizens and politicians in their home countries on current problems of global relevance. A workshop jointly conducted by these two academic bodies in Berlin (May 27-29, 2006), declared that a) foods from approved GM crops are safe for humans and animals, b) approved GM crops do not pose environmental hazards, c) small-scale farmers, not just large scale farmers or multinational corporations, profit from the adoption of GM crops, which in turn contributes to the alleviation of poverty, d) GM crops pose no irresolvable conflict with either non-GM crops or organic farming, e) GM crops can make major contributions to the quantity and quality of food in the world, and f) freedom of choice should apply to all farmers and consumers, not just to some of them. 


According to Ernst & Young, the European biotechnology sector has now experienced the second-strongest financing year on record, with Euro 3.2 billion in raised capital.   In 2005, the revenues of Europe's publicly traded biotech companies increased by 28 per cent, as against the world’s 18 per cent.


In an interview about ‘green biotechnology’ with EU Politics (June 2, 2006), the CEO of BASF said that if there are individual EU countries, which do not want GE crops, they should leave the EU.  He said that if consumers do not like it they will not buy it and that a situation, whereby these products are proved safe and then countries say we do not want this product, cannot be accepted.   He further stated that if 25 countries agree to give a certain authority to Brussels and entrust them to take a decision and they agree that the new technologies enter into the EU, and then it should not be up to countries to prevent that.


In the Eurobarometer 2005 survey, 52 per cent of 25,000 Europeans believed that biotechnology would improve quality of life.  Eurobarometer surveys on biotechnology were conducted in 1991, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005.  

Most Europeans seem to favour medical and industrial applications of biotechnology, but about 58 per cent are still skeptical about agricultural biotechnology.   Nevertheless, biopharming, the use of GE plants in the production of pharmaceuticals, is widely supported, along with biofuels and bioplastics. 

Public confidence in the EU’s regulation of biotechnology (78 per cent) is more than in their own Governments. 

A vast majority expressed trust in University and industry scientists and wants the politicians to rely more on the advice of expert scientists.  The claim that the European public opinion is more technology-adverse than in US and Canada, is dispelled.  Optimism about biotechnology's contribution to improving society has grown significantly since 1999. Nevertheless, efforts still needed to bring science and technology closer to people and foster communication between scientists and the public.

July 5, 2006