Plant genomics, biotechnology: Planting the roots for change
A stakeholder vision report on the future of plant genomics and biotechnology in Europe has been released.
To fulfil the EU’s potential in the sector
over the next two decades, the document recommends the creation of a multi-stakeholder platform
to chart a coherent and consensual course forward.
Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin officially unveiled, on 24 June 2004, a special report on the future of plant genomics and its applications in Europe. Entitled ‘2025: a vision for plant genomics and biotechnology’, the document explores the promise and risks of this important emerging field in which Europe must claim a lead role.
“Despite Europe having been at the forefront of plant science and biotechnology, its leading position has drastically deteriorated in recent years,” Mr Busquin told a Brussels press conference. He attributes this “to public concerns over the impact of these technologies, insufficient communication of the benefits… to the public, and lack of strategic research programmes as compared to our competitors”.
“Europe's position is declining as a consequence of the political inertia caused by the polarised and increasingly heated debate between opponents and advocates, with a sceptical and confused public caught in the crossfire,” the report echoes.
But the stakes are high, the paper points out. For instance, the EU’s agri-food industry generates €600 billion a year and employs 2.6 million people – excluding farmers – mainly in small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the EU-15 alone. Handled correctly, plant genomics and its biotechnological applications hold significant promise of improving the sustainability and productivity of modern agriculture, as well as creating a whole range of biodegradable products, including plant-based oils, lubricants and plastics.
Nevertheless, US biotech firms spend €650 million a year on R&D, while their EU counterparts invest only €400 million. Last year, the American government launched a National Plant Genome Initiative with a total budget of €1.1 billion from 2003 to 2008. EU-15 support is estimated to be around €80 million annually.
Reflecting the importance of the sector, leading European and international personalities have signed up to the 2025 vision document. They include Federico Mayor, president of Spain’s Foundation for a Culture of Peace and former UNESCO director-general, German and UK Nobel laureates Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Tim Hunt, as well as Mohamed HA Hassan, executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences.
Platform for change
The report emphasises that Europe needs to chart a responsible course out of the current impasse. “If Europe is not to fall behind its major global competitors in this crucial area of innovation and future prosperity, the legitimate concerns of both critics and advocates need to be addressed.”
In the context of good governance, this should be done through a multi-stakeholder dialogue. “Plant genomics and biotechnology is neither a magic wand that will wave away all our problems nor will it wreak havoc and disaster. To fully appreciate the potential benefits and pitfalls, and to chart a safe course through them, requires a publicly supported road map.”
The report’s main recommendation is to set up a technology platform called ‘Plants for the Future’ which will bring together all relevant stakeholders: researchers, policy-makers, environmental and consumer groups, industry, and farmers.
“These partners will co-operate in a pragmatic, non-dogmatic manner to reach a consensus on common priorities and draw up action plans to implement them,” the document foresees.
The formulation of the vision was, in itself, an exercise in co-operation. It was drafted by the so-called Genval Group, a multi-stakeholder team drawing representatives from Europe’s leading research institutions, industry, farmers associations, consumer organisations, as well as the European Commission.
Source: EU and external
’2025: a vision for plant genomics and biotechnology’ [
– 704 Kb]
European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO)