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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by Mr David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection to the conference on "Genetics and the future of Europe", 7 November 2000 Bruxelles

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to stand here today alongside Mr Busquin and close the Conference on Genetics and the Future of Europe.

Even though it is the end of two days of interesting discussions on important topics like human health, food integrity, biodiversity and responsible use of genetics, I hope that this is not the end but in fact a new beginning.

A new beginning for a more constructive, balanced and inclusive dialogue involving not only science, but all parts of society.

I firmly believe that the only way to obtain societal acceptance of the application of genetics and biotechnology is to promote an open-minded dialogue between all stakeholders - such as scientists, industry, farmers and consumers.

This summer at the Summit in Japan, the leaders of the G8 concluded that policy dialogue engaging stakeholders must be intensified to advance health protection, facilitate trade, ensure the sound development of biotechnology, and to foster consumer confidence and public acceptance.

Too often in the past we have experienced the absence of a real dialogue and witnessed a great deal of emotion and insufficient reason.

We need to distance ourselves from the emotional battlefields and get people from different parts of civil society together for discussions on a level playing field - to ask and respond, to questions of concern, to debate the future society and the role of life-sciences.

In achieving this, the scientific community and individual scientists play a crucial role. Scientists must come forward and

- be open and transparent about the kind of research they carry out

- be part of the public debate

- be open about possible concerns

Scientists should be willing to answer questions from the man in the street regardless of the fact that these questions, from a scientific point of view, may be uninteresting and appear ignorant. Important discussions about the application of biotechnology should not only be carried out amongst scientists themselves. As Commissioner Busquin said at the opening of this Conference, creativity should not be confined to the test tube, it should also apply to the social function of scientists.

I would like to point to the Swiss example.

In June 1998 the Swiss people voted on a constitutional amendment which would have led to

- A total ban of the production, sale and use of transgenic animals

- A ban of the release of GMOs into the environment

- A ban on patenting of plants and animals

This would also have had a severe impact on Swiss scientific research in several areas, including research targeted at curing diseases such as cancer and aids. To counter the initiative, a large number of Swiss scientists entered into the public debate and campaigned to

- Eliminate the lack of knowledge surrounding public discussions

- Develop and implement durable core messages

- Explain the key role of research

Importantly, the campaign also endorsed a consistent regulatory approach.

Never before have Swiss scientists been so heavily involved in the political debate and an estimated 5000 professors, researchers and students demonstrated their concern.

The campaign was successful and following two and a half years of campaigning, the 62 % of the Swiss population with a negative approach towards biotechnology was reduced to 31 %.

There are more facets to the Swiss example than I have time to mention here. However, it demonstrates that scientists are social actors and can make a crucial difference should the debate become monopolised by one side of the political spectrum.

In the EU public concerns about the application of biotechnology in the agri-food sector have resulted in a de-facto moratorium on authorisations of new GMOs. In fact no GMOs have been approved over the last two years.

In the pharmaceutical field, however, no major concerns about the application of biotechnology have been expressed. The application of biotechnology to medicine is perceived as socially acceptable because the benefits outweigh the risks, whereas in the food sector consumers have not benefited from the potential of the new technology – at least not yet.

In July, the Commission presented a strategy to overcome this stalemate on approving new GMOs, highlighting elements such as traceability and the labelling of GMOs. However, another equally important element is to engage in dialogue with stakeholders.

The revised Directive on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment contains provisions concerning consultation of, and information to the public. Risk assessment reports will be made publicly available and the public may make comments before a final decision is taken at Community level.

I believe this is an essential step in the right direction. Safety assessments and information about research ought to be more widely and easily available than is currently the case. There is a real challenge for scientists, governments and industry to deliver on this.

We need to work together to design the best ways of building open and transparent processes for a balanced debate that can rebuild public confidence and contribute to societal consensus on the role of life sciences in our future society.

I am confident that this Conference has been a step towards the attainment of these objectives and I hope that it has contributed to your own strong and lasting commitment to these goals.

Thank you for your attention.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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