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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

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 transparency"

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 transparency".

First you have to get the transparency, then you build trust, thereby achieving expansion, or at a minimum, choice.

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 time immemorial.

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 technologies.

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 avoided.

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 autoroutes?

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 interest.

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 research.

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 looking for.

All of this work is designed as one earlier speaker suggested, "to get the EU out of this mess".

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.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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