Life Sciences & Biotechnology

The EU’s Life Sciences and Biotech Strategy aims to make the European biotech sector more competitive and to foster research in the areas of health care, agriculture, manufacturing and the environment.

Background

Life sciences and biotechnology is viewed as one of the key technology areas of the 21 century, with the potential to dramatically change important aspects of health care, agriculture and food production, environmental protection, energy production and industrial processes.

The Commission considers biotechnology to be of strategic and long-term importance for Europe in the context of developing a highly competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in line with the Lisbon agenda.

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. The paper warns that prejudice against biotechnology has cost Europe in terms of jobs, growth and prosperity. The strategy raises hopes for a new start for the European biotech industry, which was stalled for years by legislative obstacles. 

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. The last report states that the situation regarding European biotechnology and its competitiveness still needs to be improved, mainly because of:

  • delays are still reported in the transposition of the directive (98/44/EC) on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions (20 out of 25 member states have transposed it);
  • member states' poor implementation of the new legislative framework governing GMOs; 
  • poor R&D spending. 

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.

Issues

The Commission adopted, on 11 April 2007, a Communication on the mid term review of the strategy on the EU's 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 systemslack 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.

An industry study (April 2005) comparing the American and European biotechnology sectors shows that the biotech sector is equally dynamic on both sides of Atlantic. According to the report, Europe has more biotech companies than the US but they have less funding. Further, the report shows that the US biotech industry employs double the people and spends three times as much on R&D as Europe.

Positions

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".

The European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS), established in 2000 to advise the Commission on the life sciences and technologies, finished its mandate in January 2005. Just before, it made public the key lifescience related challenges it believes need to be addressed if Europe is to take a leading position in the sector. These include:  

  • putting more effort to decoding the genomes of all microbes (potentially huge industrial and environmental benefits); 
  • moving forward, in a responsible fashion, with embryonic stem cell research; 
  • investing more in developmental biology to understand the fundamental mechanics of biology better; 
  • using the ‘gene revolution’ to remedy dwindling food supplies and natural resources and to combat environmental degradation caused by current intensive farming techniques and the use of non-renewable fossil fuels; 
  • moving towards a multidisciplinary systems biology approach that takes a holistic view of biological challenges; 
  • resolving the public controversy over genetically modified food; 
  • streamlining the European regulatory environment to stimulate future innovation; 
  • intellectual property issues, to enable the effective sharing of knowledge and information; 
  • overcoming the education 'bottleneck' in which not enough new graduates are emerging from the education system to fill the needs of the research community.    

The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) urges member states to follow words with actions. The association is worried by the declining competitiveness of the European pharmaceutical sector and persistent threats to intellectual property rights. In particular, EFPIA has called for progress on the Community Patent and on national implementation of the Biotechnology Patent Directive.

The employers' federation UNICE has emphasised that an attractive climate is needed for investors, entrepreneurs and researchers, as the current 'brain drain' is preventing Europe from reaping the fruits of biotechnology. UNICE considers that clear decisions on the issue of legislation are of the utmost importance to restore confidence in EU biotechnology. The organisation has therefore called for governments to improve authorisation procedures for new biotech products and to fully transpose the Biotechnology Patents Directive.

Greenpeace and other environmental pressure groups have been fighting a fierce campaign against biotechnology and especially its uses in agriculture and food. Moreover, they oppose patents on all genes. "Life is not an industrial commodity. When we force life forms and our world's food supply to conform to human economic models rather than their natural ones, we do so at our own peril," Greenpeace said in a statement.

Timeline

  • The Commission published its mid-term review of the life sciences and biotech strategy on 11 April 2007. The review proposes to refocus the EU's 30-point action plan on five interdependent priority actions.
  • The mid term review draws on a study on the social, economic and environmental consequences and challenges of modern biotechnology, conducted by the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC). 
  • Eurobarometer on European attitudes towards biotechnology was published in July 2006. 
  • The Commission adopted its 3rd progress report on the European strategy for life sciences and biotechnology on 29 June 2005.

Further Reading

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