Europe's new strategy for life sciences and biotech
Industry welcomed the Commission's refocused biotech strategy but said it would be even greater if actually implemented. Meanwhile, NGOs denounced EU funding for GM food research saying it goes against EU public opinion.
The Commission adopted, on 11 April 2007, a Communication on the mid term review of the strategy on life sciences and biotechnology 2002-2010. According to the Commission, the strategy has been successful, is still relevant and, therefore, its implementation will be continued.
The main results of the implementation 2002-2006 are integration of regional clusters, inspiration of national action plans and adoption of a new legal framework on GMOs.
Not much has changed with developing and facilitating innovation in the EU's biotech sector, which is dominated by SMEs. Small companies still have to cope with EU's fragmented patent systems, lack of risk capital to finance R&D and insufficient co-operation between science and business.
The review proposes to refocus the EU's 30-point action plan on five interdependent priority actions:
- Promote research and market development for life sciences and biotech applications;
- Foster competitiveness by facilitating knowledge transfer and innovation from the science base to industry;
- Encourage informed societal debates on the benefits and risk of life sciences and biotechnology;
- Ensure a sustainable contribution of modern biotechnology to agriculture;
- Improve the implementation of the legislation and its impact on competitiveness.
The Communication is said to provide "an important step towards a competitive and sustainable Knowledge Based Bio-Economy (KBBE)". According to the Commission, bio-economy stands for sustainability and cleaner environment, improved population health, support for rural development, and increased industrial competitiveness through innovative eco-efficient bio-based products based on non-fossil fuels and materials.
The mid term review draws on the Bio4EU study conducted by the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC). It presents and gives concrete examples of possible biotech applications and assesses their impact from economical, social and environmental point of view.
Biotechnology plays an increasing role in the health sector, with the development of new techniques for treatments and disease prevention. Industrial biotechnology is also gaining momentum due to increasing environmental and energy supply concerns, since it represents an alternative to chemical processes and fossil fuels and promises economic and environmental benefits. Agricultural biotechnologies include development of genetically modified (GM) crops.
In January 2002, the Commission adopted a Communication entitled Life Sciences and Biotechnology: A Strategy for Europe. The strategy consists of specific policy orientations and a 30-point action plan to turn the policy into action.
Since the adoption of the European biotechnology strategy, the Commission issues yearly reports on its implementation - the first progress report was published in March 2003, the second in April 2004, the third in October 2005.
At the request of the Parliament, the Commission launched, in October 2005, an assessment of modern biotechnology and an evaluation of its consequences, opportunities and challenges for Europe in terms of economic, social and environmental aspects. The aim was to consider the role of the life sciences and biotech in the renewed Lisbon Agenda. A stakeholder consultation on the issues was also conducted in 2006.
EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries considers that the refocused actions proposed by the Commission are an important step towards building the bio-economy. However, industry points to the lack of implementation of the EU biotech strategy by a number of member states. "Member states must take their responsibilities to implement the biotech strategy seriously otherwise today's mid term review of the European strategy will not generate the bio-economy and meanwhile US, China and the rest of the world will run ahead of Europe," said Johan Vanhemelrijck, Secretary General of EuropaBio.
EuropaBio urges the ministers to implement the strategy in a coherent and timely manner to overcome "the fragmented European legal, financial and regulatory environment" to help "stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation, take the science out of the labs and bring it to society, build the bio-economy and help grow companies, jobs and solutions to our own unmet needs be they medical, agricultural, industrial, environmental".
Friends of the Earth Europe warns that "the European Commission intends to promote genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe, even though it admits that that the European public does not want to eat GM foods" and argues that "environmentally-friendly farming will create more jobs and make the EU more competitive than if it grows GM crops."
"The European Commission's own research shows that the use of GM crops is an economic failure. But instead of scrapping its support, the Commission is instead ignoring the wishes of the majority of the European public and asking for looser regulation and more taxpayers' money for GM crops," said Helen Holder, GMO Coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe.
A recent Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology (2005) shows that there is widespread support for medical and industrial biotechnologies but a general opposition to agricultural biotechnologies in all but a few countries and that EU citizens see genetically modified (GM) food as "not being useful, as morally unacceptable and as a risk for society".