Speech by David
Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer
Protection - Trust through transparency, Biovision World
Life Sciences Forum, Lyon, 10 February 2001
Originally bioVision asked me to speak
on the theme of "Expansion through trust and
This implied to me that trust and
transparency already existed vis-à-vis the life sciences
and biotechnology in particular.
I do not believe that to be the case, so
I asked that my presentation be entitled "Trust through
First you have to get the transparency,
then you build trust, thereby achieving expansion, or at a
I am here not to advocate biotech
solutions; nor am I here to advocate any other particular
technology, even if that technology has been around since
What I am an advocate of, and a very
strong one, is looking for the rational centre.
If you can find the rational centre, and
in this debate that is not a given, then I believe that one
can move the debate on.
Your sessions on Food Safety and Public
Acceptance were captivating and addressed all of the key
issues that are on my desk at present.
Our own survey data of EU citizens
reveal that Europeans have become increasingly opposed to
GM food, but remain supportive of medical and environmental
aspects of biotechnology.
It appears that where citizens perceive
genuine moral difficulties and/or no real benefits, then
they are unwilling to accept the perceived risks of new
The use of GM bacteria to clean up oil
spills at sea is generally acceptable. But eating a biscuit
made from GM is considered risky and generally to be
And yet one person every hour of every
day dies on the roads of France. How many French citizens
would relish the prospect of going back to the days of a
red flag carrier walking in front of their Peugeot? Would
they support an 80 km/hr speed limit on the
And yet nobody has drawn to my attention
that somebody has died from eating GM foods. And 500,000
Europeans die every year from smoking and I have a battle
on my hands to regulate that industry. And I have a battle
on my hands to gain acceptance for and enforcement of the
safety laws of the EU in respect of BSE.
We are, of course, in the biotech food
area dealing with emotion, culture, ethics, equity,
fairness and broader societal issues. We are dealing with
what people perceive to be an unknown risk; as opposed to
the rationalised risk of smoking a cigarette or driving a
car at 150 km/hr.
Trust can only come through
transparency. People must get the message but our research
shows that this is not getting through. This is a
collective responsibility and I see that this message is
shared by the conclusions of the work that has gone on here
over the past couple of days e.g. "Public education and
dialogue and dialogue are essential"; "Help people to
appreciate the fact that there is no risk free solution to
food production. Explain how any potential risks associated
with biotechnology are assessed and controlled."
But in the absence of trust what is to
be done? Bury our heads in the sand and forget about
biotech advances generally?
It will come as no great surprise that I
would reject that proposition.
What needs to be done is to introduce
appropriate regulation to give consumers confidence that
public institutions have provided a sound safety
environment and, secondly, to give consumers maximum
opportunity to choose.
If that capability to have choice is not
there, then I believe that there is no prospect of
expansion, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
In the EU context, I think that so far
as science goes it is transparent at least as far as the
conclusions of scientific risk assessment is concerned.
Yet, people mistrust the outcome of very carefully
considered risk assessments.
But it is not all about science. Even
where there are agreements among scientists on a global
level, different management and regulatory responses may be
taken in different countries or regions. This is of course
allowed for by the WTO rules, but it serves to cause
confusion among consumers and can, of course, give rise to
international trade concerns.
Let me be frank. Even with the degree of
consensus that emerged here in Lyon, I still fear that the
debate is somewhat polarised by the pros and the contras.
Finding the rational centre is still elusive.
For my part and that of the European
Commission, the key issue is to put an appropriate
regulatory regime in place. I do not believe, as was
suggested in one of your working sessions, that this should
be a populist approach to public policy.
This should be rational, reasoned and
address real concerns - public policy in the common
But, contrary to what some might wish,
it means regulation and strong regulation.
The first of our regulatory building
blocks is almost in place - that is the revised Directive
on the deliberate release of GM0s into the environment, the
updated version of Directive 901220 which will be voted on
in the European Parliament next week. This provides for
strong safeguards in terms of assessment, monitoring,
traceability, time limited authorisations and
I am also working on new legislation on
the specifics of traceability and labelling for "live" GM0s
and for food derived from GM0s. Our traceability regime
will cover all sectors - seeds, feed food.
We will also have new regulation for GM
animal feed and GM food. In regard to food I am considering
abolishing the DNA/protein detectability criterion for
labelling. This would give consumers the choice they are
All of this work is designed as one
earlier speaker suggested, "to get the EU out of this
I am conscious that the pros and the
contras might not find the solutions I am proposing fully
palatable. But both sides should recognise that this is an
honest exercise in balance in the interest of the common
good. If business wants to sell product then they must
comply. If consumers are to gain trust, they must be
assured that there is strong regulation to meet their
concerns. If they gain trust they will purchase product and
business can prosper in a virtuous circle.
I am struck by the fact that what we are
engaged in here is very much a first world debate and
exercise. As the Chinese Minister for Technology said, show
me another technology that can feed my citizens into the
future. That is a huge issue. But I believe that the
regulatory responses at the global level need to be
similar, particularly as regards science based
authorisation procedures. Otherwise there are enormous
risks that world trade will be disrupted and that
protectionist barriers are erected.
The Commission is not solely focused on
regulatory aspects. We are concerned too about the
innovative capacity of the EU in the biotech sphere. So
concerned that President Prodi has initiated a reflection
on how to boost our competitive capacity going forward. My
colleagues Commissioners Liikanen, Busquin, Wallström and
myself are involved in this initiative and I am confident
it will bear fruit.
FOOD SAFETY |
DIRECTORATE GENERAL "HEALTH
& CONSUMER PROTECTION"