The State and Future of Plant Biotechnology in Europe Round Table Discussion, By Invitation of the UK Presidency of the EU London, 11 October 2005 STRENGTHS •The EU still has a strong world-class (basic) plant science and (applied) (bio)tech R&D, also in comparison to the US. • In some EU member states, public and private sector parties have made considerable advances on the learning-curve for successful plant science and (bio)tech R&D collaboration. •The European Research Area (ERA) Net Plant Genomics comprises public institutions and private sector parties from several EU member states, demonstrating an increased ability to extract value from scientific knowledge. Its excellence also attracts interests from countries outside the EU, like Norway, Israel, the US and China. •The EU has all elements of a major food economy and there is food of high quality in abundance in the EU. WEAKNESSES •The political climate for increasing public expenditure on science and technology is not conducive for R&D-driven innovation. •Voices of dissent are much louder in the ears of politicians than those arguing the benefits. The GM issue is poisoning the debate in the EU. •The public in the EU has little ideas what they are eating. While engineering food is not a new concept, education at school level is essential. •EU public and private sector parties have a substantially lower share of agrobiotech patents than their US counterparts. •In many EU member states national plant science and (bio)technology R&D programmes are rather fragmented. •The EU is good at the development of concepts but weak in its implementation. •A mix of retail interests, consumer concerns and the Common Agricultural Policy discourages farmers in the EU to adopt efficient agricultural systems. •Farming in the EU is viewed too much in relation to food production, whereas farming could also be directed at production of feed, fuels, pharmaceuticals and other speciality chemicals. OPPORTUNITIES •Advances in plant science and (bio)tech R&D can contribute, through knowledge- based breeding, to diversified agriculture, forestry and industrial production systems that are more ecologically sustainable, with economic and societal advantages. •Rising oil prices and decreased ability to supply can help establish new green industries and premium agriculture, offering potentially attractive economic alternatives to generating food surpluses, thereby re-developing rural areas in the EU, through: · - plants as renewable energy sources, replacing petrochemicals; · - plant and bioreactors for delivery of new pharmaceutical compounds, vitamins, pigments, fragrances, flavours and nutraceuticals; · - plants tackling environmental pollutants. •Shift from a fossil fuel to a knowledge-based bio-economy. •Reform of the CAP will force thinking about what the farming community in the EU is going to do in the future. THREATS •Politicians in the EU generally are much less aware of the importance of plant science and technology to the economy than their US counterparts. •Regulatory compliance costs and liability risks in the EU are more disadvantageous for public R&D institutions and SMEs in the seed industry than for MNEs. •While the EU has excellent plant science and (bio)tech research, its findings are picked up and utilised commercially by global MNEs. •The unpredictability of the EU GMO regulations made several MNEs to move all their GM plant breeding R&D out of Europe. •Students view disciplines like finance and law more attractive than natural sciences and engineering. •The EU agricultural sector is losing competitiveness in a global market. While it has most technologies, it has no access to high quality seeds. The EU could become reliant on imports of ‘quality’ ingredients, e.g. edible oils with fatty acid compositions favourable to human health. •The power of NGOs in the EU campaigning against GM crops and GM food and feed should not be underestimated. RECOMMENDATIONS 1. A better understanding of the balance of risks and benefits is needed. Both private and public sector parties need to communicate at a level that politicians and lay people can understand. It is vital that this communication starts early – at school and is focused on understanding and dialogue rather than just awareness. 2. Public expenditure on plant science and (bio)tech R&D should be increased substantially at the national and the EU-level, however, only if accompanied by appropriate innovation policies, which enable to extract value of scientific knowledge and public-private R&D collaboration. 3. National public authorities must demonstrate leadership in engaging other stakeholders, i.e. the world of finance, political parties and public interest groups, in the development of a strategic research agenda for plant science and (bio)tech R&D at the national and EU-level. 4. The EU regulatory framework on the use of GMOs from farm to fork should be implemented. Timelines prescribed in the regulations should be respected at the national level. ‘Pragmatic’ thresholds for the adventitious presence of GM seeds in lots of non-GM seeds should be established as soon as possible. 5. Attractive opportunities for investment and collaboration, reform proposals for the current CAP, as well as policies and regulations on energy, chemicals, materials and GMOs should be seriously examined and revised.
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