3 May 2003
Europe sees sharp decline in GMO research - Nature Biotechnology
Death knell for GMOs in Europe...
"Field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops in the European Union (EU) have plummeted by 87% since 1998, according to a European Commission (EC) investigation."
"Two-thirds of large agroscience companies have cancelled at least one GMO research project during the same period..."
"Most Europeans consider GM foods "of little value and dangerous for society," the Eurobarometer survey found..."
"We are beginning to see early-stage research in Europe moving overseas and I expect that to continue. And multinational companies will probably not keep their R&D headquarters in Europe if they don't see a market here-especially if they also see their staff facing public hostility over what they do for a living." - Joyce Tait, director of Edinburgh University's Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics (Innogen)
Europe sees sharp decline in GMO research
May 2003 Volume 21 Number 5 pp 468 - 469
Field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops in the European Union (EU) have plummeted by 87% since 1998, according to a European Commission (EC) investigation. The last European approval for GM crop planting was granted in October 1998, and in 1999 the EU placed a formal moratorium on all new marketing applications for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until a new legal framework could be agreed on. As a result, requests to start European field trials of GM crops have fallen from the 1998 peak of 254 to only 61 in 2001 and an estimated 33 in 2002. By contrast, notifications of GM trials in the US are running at between 900 and 1,100 a year.
Two-thirds of large agroscience companies have cancelled at least one GMO research project during the same period, says the EC's Joint Research Commission (JRC) in its review of the state of GMO research in Europe. Its survey of private companies and research institutions working in the field cited the unclear legal situation, low public acceptance of GM products, and an uncertain market situation as the top three reasons for cancellation.
The JRC report, "Review of GMOs under research and development and in the pipeline in Europe," places the blame squarely on the 1999 moratorium, combined with the general public rejection of GMOs. It says the two factors have caused a "significant decrease" in the opportunity/cost ratio for agricultural GMO development. Joyce Tait, director of Edinburgh University's Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics (Innogen), says the report merely reflects "rational behavior" by the commercial sector. "Since the moratorium, companies have obviously been holding off until the new regulatory regime came into play."
But even universities and public research institutes have pulled back from the technology, with as many as a quarter of them dropping GMO R&D projects, according to the report. These bodies tended to cite lack of funding and uncertain scientific feasibility, suggesting that Europe's current political antagonism towards GMOs has affected the allocation of research grants.
Simon Barber, plant biotechnology director at the trade association EuropaBio, says the JRC's findings "clearly indicate that Europe is likely to become an importer of plant biotechnology rather than a developer." He called on EU governments to prevent the "withering" of European research into plant biotechnology.
European research commissioner Philippe Busquin admits the report shows GMO research has been "seriously undermined" in Europe. "The increasingly skeptical climate is scaring European biotech companies and research centers away," he warns. "If we do not reverse the trend now, we will be unable to reap the benefits of the life science revolution and [we will] become dependent on technologies developed elsewhere."
Moreover, the EC's own research funding program has itself been affected by the general antagonism to GMOs, says Innogen's Joyce Tait. "It is very difficult to see anything in the program to encourage research on the science," she told Nature Biotechnology. "The politics of GM crops in Europe is so highly contentious that the commission would have been reluctant to put forward proposals that had to be passed by the European Parliament."
So far only 14 GM crop varieties have been authorized for European sale, while a total of 19 applications are currently awaiting a decision. But Busquin indicated he expects a jump in the number applications for GM crop marketing, following the coming into force last October of a new European directive governing the controlled release of GMOs.
The JRC report forecasts that the coming generation of GM products will focus on "output traits"-improved qualities that add consumer value-rather than "input traits" such as herbicide resistance which merely make crops cheaper to grow.
Currently, input traits represent 77% of the products in current EU field trials. Only one application to field-trial an output trait crop-a potato variety with modified starch content-has been filed. But the JRC survey found that input and output traits are about equally represented in laboratory research. It expects within the next five years applications for soybean and oilseed rape with modified starch or fatty acid content, flowering plants with modified color and form, and tomatoes with altered ripening characteristics.
About 11% of laboratory R&D projects in the EU are investigating health-related output traits (so called 'molecular farming'). But these varieties represent less than 1% of EU field trials, despite the hopes placed by the industry in this form of biotechnology. By contrast the US is very active in this field, according to the report. "Stacked" traits-varieties containing more than one modified characteristic-are still relatively unusual. The report estimates that they represent less than 15% of field trials in the EU.
The report's worrying findings were reinforced by a new EC survey of public opinion that confirmed the widespread lack of trust in plant biotechnology. Most Europeans consider GM foods "of little value and dangerous for society," the Eurobarometer survey found (see Table 1). Just over half the population think that GM food is dangerous and, surprisingly, the more people are educated, the more likely they are to believe this. Only Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Finland have a majority in favor of the technology. Above all, Europeans want to retain the right to choose, with 95% demanding clear labeling of GM-derived foods, according to the Eurobarometer research.
Paul Burrows, head of science strategy at the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said the bioscience research community has been aware of the issue for some time. "Whilst acknowledging skepticism about agricultural and food applications, it is encouraging to see that there is clearly an overall level of support for biotechnology," he says.
But Joyce Tait is less optimistic. "We are beginning to see early-stage research in Europe moving overseas and I expect that to continue," she says. "And multinational companies will probably not keep their R&D headquarters in Europe if they don't see a market here-especially if they also see their staff facing public hostility over what they do for a living."