Analyst: EU caution on new technologies causing missed opportunities

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While the Union’s cautious approach to granting market authorisation to new technology applications like GMOs or products derived from nanotechnology has meant that EU has not suffered from any major backlash, it could also mean the bloc is missing out on major opportunities to improve its competitiveness, argued a policy analyst from a Brussels-based think tank in an interview with euractiv.com.

Marie-Hélène Fandel is a policy analyst at the European Policy Institute (EPC), a Brussels-based think tank, which runs, among others, a Lifestyle Risks Forum. One of this multi-stakeholder forum’s topics is discussion of whether the EU’s approach to the management of the risks associated with new technologies is effective.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here
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Why do you think there is a need to discuss the risk management of new technologies? 

New technologies will inevitably impact on our lives and the EU needs to agree on a specific course of action to manage the associated risks. Technological progress both poses challenges and offers opportunities, and discussion is important in cases where the impact of new technologies is relatively unknown or contested. The political landscape is often divided into two camps: those EU member states which tend to see the opportunities more immediately, and those which are more cautious about the challenges. 

Given the EU’s single market and recognising that new products increasingly incorporate new technologies – for instance nanotech particles in sunscreen lotion – a common approach is necessary to ensure that all safe products can circulate in the single market and that potential risks are given due consideration. This requires a fair deal of information and knowledge exchange across the EU to ensure that products do not end up on the market in cases where potential harm has not been fully investigated. But equally, the EU must ensure that it benefits from the economic opportunities created by new products, and hence that products are not banned from the single market without clear evidence that they pose significant risks. 

With an increasing number of products incorporating nanotech or biotech processes, a common approach is needed to avoid a fragmentation of the single market over product safety issues. This issue is explored at length in the EPC’s Lifestyle Risks Forum and some policy options were outlined in a recent EPC Policy Brief entitled ‘Is the health of the Single Market under threat?‘ 

The EPC Lifestyle Risks Forum investigates what EU action might be necessary to ensure that consumer interests are protected while maintaining a level playing field for industry and businesses in the EU’s internal market. The next meeting will focus on how risk should be communicated in Europe, including how to deal with health scares. 

What are the risks associated with new technologies? 

The risks are mainly the potential damage inflicted on health and the environment. For example, when asbestos was introduced as a new building material, people were unaware of the devastating impact this could have on health. But new technologies can also be very beneficial. For example, they have the potential to help cure specific diseases, for instance cancer in the case of nanotech or to improve the environment by, for example, reducing energy usage. New technologies also raise ethical questions, for example when it comes to reproductive medicine and the use of stem cells. It is also important that decision-makers recognise the risk of inaction – if the EU fails to act quickly on new technologies, the chances are that the economic benefits – such as new jobs – will be enjoyed by one of its competitors. 

Past technological breakthroughs have demonstrated that risks are inherent in any new technology but what really matters is how those risks are managed. But communicating information about risk is tricky: the public can be opposed to a new technology because people perceive a risk even if it is very small and can be managed effectively. This can lead to a very risk-averse approach to new technologies. 

What do you think of the EU’s current risk assessment/management of nanotech (the recently adopted code of conduct for responsible nanotech research) or biotech/GM crops?

The current approach to nanotech has been efficient to the extent that the EU has not suffered from any major backlash resulting from poor risk assessment or communication. The Union’s approach has been relatively cautious, but the other side of the coin is, of course, that we do not know whether it has missed opportunities because of such caution. What certainly needs to improve is the speed of response: in the case of nanotech, the code of conduct was developed after goods incorporating nanotechnologies had already reached the EU market. 

How do you think public perception of risks related to new technologies or their applications affect EU risk assessment and management? 

There is a link between the public perception of risks and a member state’s decision to approve or oppose a new technology. Risks associated with new technologies can easily spark very emotional debates and it is very difficult for any politician to go against public opinion. 

If governments are opposed to the application of specific new technologies, they might reject the validity of the EU risk assessment and call for additional evidence-based assessments. This might also affect risk management: evidence from major crises such as BSE [the so-called mad cow disease] shows that the EU’s risk-management plans were bypassed by national ‘risk-management’ approaches, with some EU countries deciding to continue the ban on British beef after it was judged to be safe – and the same could happen in the area of new technologies. 

Should the Commission give market authorisation to products proved safe by its scientific agencies but against which there is negative hype and Council opposition? 

Politically it is very difficult to authorise products if there is negative hype and opposition in the Council. But any decision should be based on the risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis. Every effort must also be made to win the support of the member states and public opinion. The real question should be why there is so much negative hype. And whether there is something the EU and the member states are doing wrong which allows such fears to take hold. 

Do you think science is getting ‘politicised’ in the EU? 

In the EU’s institutional setup, elected politicians decide on the approval of some new technologies. All GMOs and derived products are evaluated by the EFSA, which carries out a risk assessment, and the resulting scientific advice is then used by the Commission and the member states when they make a decision. Decisions on market authorisation require a vote in the Council, which is a political body. So politicians are deciding on the market authorisation of new technology applications. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as science is very rarely ‘neutral’. What really matters here is the degree to which the scientific evidence is used in the decision, and the quality of the cost-benefit analysis. 

What role does the precautionary principle play in EU’s risk assessment and management regarding new technologies? 

The ‘precautionary principle’ is the basis on which risks assessments are made. The debate on the precautionary principle is often linked to the debate on European competitiveness, with some arguing that it is a major hindrance to innovation. If we are too cautious, we will not move forward and ultimately risk losing our competitive edge. On the other hand, if there is a significant risk to health or the environment, we should not rush into adopting new technologies. It all depends on our assessments of the benefits and costs and on whether the risks can be managed. 

Are we moving towards a principle of measuring the risks of inaction (e.g. current debate on the role of GM crops as potential answer to increasing food prices and climate change)? 

GM crops can probably contribute to respond to some of our food supply needs, but they are not a silver bullet – it all depends on how the risks associated with their use are managed. But given the potential contribution of GM to mitigating global food shortages, some now see this technology in a more positive light. 

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