24 March 2003
MASS EXODUS OF EUROPE'S BIOTECH COMPANIES FROM GM
*mass exodus of Europe's biotech companies from GM crops
*Pro-Agro shows the gate to its research staff
GM Crops: Industry 0 - Protesters 1
Severin Carrell reports on the mass exodus of Europe's biotech companies from genetically modified crops
The Independent on Sunday, 23 March 2003
[For a copy of the full report
Europe's biotech firms have cancelled millions of pounds worth of research into genetically modified crops, sending the industry into a steep slump, a new study has found.
The European Commission has admitted that nearly two thirds of the EU's biotech companies have cancelled GM research projects over the past four years, mainly because of the controversy over the safety and labelling of GM crops, and continuing consumer resistance.
The Commission also found that the number of GM field trial applications fell by 76 per cent last year, from the 250 submitted in 1998 to a level not seen since 1992. By comparison, US field trial bids have remained relatively stable at about 1,000 a year.
The Commission's gloom deepened after an opinion poll of 16,500 people showed deep-rooted disquiet about GM crops. Although 44 per cent of Europeans believed medical biotechnology would improve their lives, only 36 per cent supported GM foods.
Philippe Busquin, the European Research Commissioner, complained that "unjustified fears and prejudice" were severely damaging the EU's economic prospects.
"The increasingly sceptical climate is scaring European biotech companies and research centres away," he claimed. "If we do not reverse the trend now, we will be dependent on technologies developed elsewhere."
In a bid to counter this problem, he is ploughing another o2.25bn (?1.52bn) into life sciences research.
The survey also underlined the public sector's increasingly leading role in biotech R&D in Europe. Only 22 per cent of research institutes and 25 per cent of university institutes abandoned GM projects, compared to 68 per cent of the big biotech firms.
Anti-GM groups said Mr Busquin appeared to have ignored evidence that investors were nervous about the viability of biotech companies. One study by the London-based Institute for Science in Society said share values in leading US biotech firms dropped 43 per cent last year.
Sue Mayer, of campaign group Genewatch, said the sector had failed to justify claims it could quickly produce GM crops with improved nutritional or health properties, and had suppressed damaging results from trials.
Sub: Public opinion on GM crops cannot be ignored
The AgBioIndia Bulletin
In India, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), as the name suggests, is actually mandated to approve GM crops. It justified its existence by giving a hasty clearance to the country's first genetically modified crop -- Bt cotton -- on March 26, 2002. It ignored the strong public opinion, pushed scientific advise under wraps and gace the green signal to the private seed company which ostensibly was exerting a lot of pressure.
The result: Bt cotton crop failed. Farmers have been left in the lurch while the company has made millions on the sale of inferior seed, which did not stand to the claims that were made.
Far away, Switzerland's highest court has stepped in to ensure that public opinion is not ignored. It stopped last week an outdoor trial of genetically modified wheat due to go ahead later this month. This ruling by the Federal Court overturned a decision by the environment ministry in February giving the experiment the green light.
NOTICE BOARD: Pro-Agro shows the gate to its research staff
Failure to get approval for commercialisation of GM Mustard is believed to be the reason for the exit of some of the top scientists working with Pro-Agro, which is backed by the multinational firm Aventis.
Pro-Agro may deny it but the industry is already talking about it. ProAgro's research director Dr Paresh Verma, who had earlier led the company's PR campaign on GM Mustard, and which was eventually turned down by the GEAC, has been asked to go. He has meanwhile joined a Hyderabad-based company, Biofeeds Ltd.
Paresh Verma had earlier claimed "based on the field trials of the crop conducted at a total of 69 locations over the last 4 years in both government sponsored and independent trials, it was established that these GM mustard hybrids give a minimum of 20 per cent increase in seed and oil yield compared to the best traditional open pollinated varieties currrently grown in India. This yield advantage has also been confirmed in trials conducted by ICAR."The then Deputy director-general of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Dr Mangla Rai had totally refuted the the claims made by the ProAgro saying "only four field trials have been conducted under ICAR's supervision and the data generated so far do not substantiate Dr Verma's claims."