Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Europe Invites Biotech Debate ; the EU's Farm Ministers Will Hold a Special Meeting Next Week to Hear Expert Evidence on Biotechnology

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Europe Invites Biotech Debate ; the EU's Farm Ministers Will Hold a Special Meeting Next Week to Hear Expert Evidence on Biotechnology

Article excerpt

Desperate to catch up with the United States on the cutting edge of biotech discovery, European governments face one major hurdle that has nothing to do with science or money: their voters.

Europeans are increasingly skeptical about genetic engineering, whether it be the genetic modification of crops such as corn, or the cloning of human cells. And their doubts have had an impact: the European Union has approved no new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for the past three years.

But attempts to boost consumer confidence with more and stricter regulations have run into difficulties on a different front. American exporters - who grow millions of acres of genetically modified corn, soy, and canola - say Europe's new rules discriminate against them. The Bush administration agrees, and is urging Brussels to drop a new labeling law for GM foods. Another trans-Atlantic trade war looms.

So, in a bid to overcome widespread disquiet, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, is launching a drive to thrash out all the scientific and ethical questions in a continent-wide consultation, using public-access websites, conferences, and public debate.

"It is of strategic and long-term importance that Europe master the new frontier technologies, in particular the life sciences and biotechnology, and use them for the benefit of society," EC president Romano Prodi said last week.

By the end of the year, the consultation involving politicians, consumers, scientists, philosophers, businesspeople, environmentalists, doctors, and farmers, is due to culminate in a policy paper setting out Europe's strategic vision for biotech.

"A driving force" behind the campaign is the fear that "without knowing what we are doing, we are putting the brakes on European industry taking advantage of new progress," says Pia Ahrenkilde, spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom.

"Europe cannot afford to miss the opportunity that these new sciences and technologies offer," the EC said in a discussion paper designed to launch the debate. But it also acknowledged that "public perception ... represents a challenge for all public authorities."

The European public is not convinced that the opportunities the Commission sees are worth the risks that worry many citizens.

While business leaders and scientists promise solutions to world hunger from genetically modified food crops, or new cures for disease by splicing human genes, European consumers are more likely to perceive threats to the environment, or the danger of people making identical clones of themselves.

Eurobarometer, the EU's polling body, found in a 1999 study, for example, that only 19 percent of respondents would be happy to eat eggs laid by chickens fed GM corn, and that 37 percent felt that biotech methods are morally acceptable in food production. That was down from 50 percent in a similar survey three years earlier, reflecting a general drop in support for GM technology.

That attitude was dramatically illustrated last year in Britain, where a group of anti-GMO protesters was acquitted by a jury on all charges arising from their destruction of an experimental cornfield. …

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