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
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
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
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
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
- A ban on patenting of plants and
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
- Eliminate the lack of knowledge
surrounding public discussions
- Develop and implement durable core
- Explain the key role of
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
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
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.
FOOD SAFETY |
DIRECTORATE GENERAL "HEALTH
& CONSUMER PROTECTION"