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Wednesday, 20 November 2002 - Strasbourg OJ edition

Life sciences and biotechnology

  President. – The next item is the report (A5-0359/2002) by Mrs Damião, on behalf of the Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy, on the Commission communication on Life sciences and biotechnology – A Strategy for Europe (COM(2002) 27 – C5-0260/2002 – 2002/2123(COS)).


  Lage (PSE), substitute rapporteur. – (PT) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, I have been given the delicate task of presenting the report by Elisa Damião, who is ill and therefore cannot be here today, although she has been lucid and clear-minded enough to follow every step of this report which quite rightly, therefore, bears her name. I feel very moved to be presenting this report, I send my greetings to Mrs Damião and hope that she is able to return to Parliament as soon as possible, because she is a person of enormous political and parliamentary ability, as well as being a great citizen.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, the amazing progress that has been made in biology and in molecular genetics is fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Scientific knowledge has moved ahead at such a pace that we are now in a position radically to change not only the vegetal and animal world, but also, eventually perhaps, our own species. This represents a genuine sea change. The abilities of science and technology have now largely gone beyond the fictions contained in literary masterpieces such as Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ or George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Nevertheless, if the truth be told, the visions contained in those works, of societies and human beings oppressed and dehumanised by the manipulation of science and technology, have fortunately not been fulfilled.

The concern expressed by the broader public, however, with regard, for example, to genetically modified organisms and to cloning is a very clear sign, which the political, scientific and industrial world must heed. An initial response was drawn up by UNESCO when, in November 1997, by consensus it adopted the universal declaration on the human genome and human rights. However, of all the revolutions that have taken place in the realm of knowledge, that of molecular biology will, perhaps, be the greatest of all and it is genetics that will have the greatest implications in the economic, cultural and ethical spheres.

Biotechnologies are part of the technologies of the future. The potential development of these gives us a glimpse of major changes in the coming years in the medicinal products, food, agriculture and environmental markets. Nevertheless, these technologies, in their practical applications, raise ethical and philosophical questions that are now part of today’s culture. Given their implications, there will always be pessimistic souls, as has always happened throughout history and throughout the history of science and technology, who see apocalyptic threats to humanity, awakening age-old fears and trepidation.

We must combat those who exploit fears, ghosts and superstitions with a cautious but optimistic attitude towards science and realise that it must be inspired by high ethical standards and legal frameworks that, whilst encouraging intellectual freedom and scientific creativity, prevent excesses. The classical humanism expressed in the famous phrase of the philosopher Seneca stated that ‘man is sacred to mankind’. This classical humanism must inspire contemporary science and all citizens.

The European Union has availed itself in recent years of a panoply of directives and regulations in the field of biotechnologies and science. Nevertheless, the many legislative acts that have been adopted constitute a genuine rag-bag, lacking a coherent, global and systemic vision of this vast sector. Some legislation that has been adopted has not been implemented and other legislation has been subject to derogations, moratoria and, even worse, numerous voids and grey areas. The global battle in the field of biotechnologies is, nevertheless, crucial.

The United States clearly lead the field in this area. Nevertheless, the Lisbon Summit outlined an ambitious target for the EU for the forthcoming decade: to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. How will this aim be achieved without a strong European commitment to biotechnologies? Europe is lagging behind the United States. Although the European Union has 1570 undertakings operating in this field and the United States has 1263, the fact is that these undertakings in the European Union employ 61 000 workers who produce a volume of business of EUR 42 billion, whereas in this same sector in the United States 162 000 workers are employed, producing the equivalent of EUR 365 billion.

This is a summary, Mr President, of the cultural, political, legal and economic context into which the Commission communication fits. This is broadly supported by Mrs Damião’s report. In fact, the action plan and the strategy presented by the Commission resolve, with one wave of a magic wand, the diffuse nature, the incoherence and the shortcomings of the legal framework and of European policies in the field of biotechnologies. We will clearly not be able to achieve this with one wave of the wand, but they do point us in the right direction.


  Liikanen, Commission. – Mr President, I would like to thank the rapporteur, Mrs Damião, in her absence, and I agree with what Mr Lage has just said about a report that voices strong and clear support for the responsible development of life sciences and biotechnology in Europe. I also warmly welcome the fact that the report has been produced on the basis of broad political agreement.

This report marks a very important step: biotechnology is the next wave of the knowledge-based economy and biotechnology research is crucial for strengthening European competitiveness in this field.

There is a growing realisation among Europeans that this technology is important for our future competitiveness and welfare. A consensus is emerging on how we might strengthen its development in a manner consistent with our European values and ethical standards. We are faced with a policy choice: either stand aside and see these technologies developed elsewhere, or exploit them ourselves in a responsible manner and to the benefit of European citizens.

As was made clear in the report that Mr Purvis submitted to Parliament last spring, biotechnology is an enabling technology. It affects, or can even transform, broad areas such as healthcare, environmental protection, agriculture and food and industrial production processes. It can be a source of innovation for new and established companies alike, and it offers unique approaches to finally solving problems, for example in the fields of healthcare and novel pharmaceuticals. Europe cannot afford to miss out on the benefits biotechnology will bring.

Members of the European Commission under the leadership of President Prodi have worked together to provide a strategy that encompasses all the various applications of biotechnology, but also tries to enable us to come up with coherent answers to the more difficult questions and choices we are faced with.

The Commission’s Communication on 'Life Sciences and Biotechnology: a strategy for Europe' builds upon the common knowledge base in life sciences and will lead to skills-based jobs that sustain the economies of the future. We propose a number of actions for the promotion of biotechnology development in Europe, and at the same time, further measures for responsible governance, to ensure that this development takes place in accordance with our societal values and needs.

The Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, under the leadership of Commissioner Busquin, will provide substantial support for the supply of skilled resources and for overcoming the fragmentation of research and lack of critical mass.

We need to ensure that research results can be protected by means of harmonised intellectual property protection, and translated into commercial products and processes through effective innovation and technology transfer.

The strategy also stresses the need to overcome the previous fragmentation in the commercial development of biotechnology in Europe and several actions will contribute to linking up researchers, emerging companies, service providers and financial institutions. The present downturn in the capital markets and the lack of risk capital needs particular and urgent attention.

The success of the biotechnology strategy will only be assured if the technology is built on a basis of societal trust. It is vital for developments, and in particular public policy-making, to take place with a maximum of transparency. We need to encourage public dialogue throughout Europe to ensure that societal goals are met and public concerns are addressed.

The strategy pursues the overarching goal of enhancing coherence between policies at the different levels. In this way, we can give proper, broad consideration to policy decisions that have an impact on our competitiveness and the future prosperity of our societies.

The Commission has started implementing measures in its own areas of responsibility. We will shortly publish the first regular report on the stage reached in this implementation work.

However, this strategy will only work well if we all – European institutions, Member States, regions, industry, academia and civil society alike – now make commitments according to our respective responsibilities and resources.

The adoption of Parliament's report and the forthcoming Council conclusions will provide the essential political backing for the effective implementation of the strategy at European level.


  Müller, Emilia Franziska (PPE-DE), draftsman of the opinion of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. (DE) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, I greatly welcome the Commission's objective of again giving the EU a leading role in the field of life sciences and biotechnology. However, the proposed strategy lags far behind expectations. I would therefore like to thank Mrs Damião very much for her comprehensive report which clarifies the Commission's strategy document in many respects. Europe must take on a pro-active role once again if it is not to lose ground in this sophisticated area of technology.

This applies especially to 'green' genetic engineering – in other words, to agriculture. A prerequisite is the establishment of an effective, predictable and stable legal framework, both for agriculture and for the biotech industry in Europe. This framework must comply, in particular, with WTO rules and safeguard the coexistence of all forms of agricultural production. The removal of the de facto moratorium for product approvals is the precondition for more planning security for companies and the agricultural sector. The moratorium is especially harmful to innovative SMEs in Europe and conflicts with the Lisbon objectives.

Within the Commission, and within the European institutions, a targeted European policy to promote a ‘B-Europe’ policy must be promoted. Based on the successful concept of eEurope, these same priorities could be pursued on an overarching basis by several of the Commission's Directorates-General.

Further key points include: support for the development of bioclusters and other models for technological transfer, easier access to risk capital, especially for start-ups and SMEs in biotech research, the introduction of a European patent, and a transparent and scientifically based information policy on the part of the authorities, companies and the scientific establishment.


  Liese (PPE-DE).(DE) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, first of all, I would like to send Mrs Damião my best wishes for her continued recovery. I would like to express my thanks to her and her colleagues, but also to Mr Lage, for their excellent cooperation. The Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats supports the Damião report, not least because the whole thing – the action plan and the report – is based on a report by our fellow Member, John Purvis.

The Damião report sends out a positive signal for biotechnology, but it also makes clear where we need better rules than currently exist. The report deliberately does not paint a 'black and white' picture. There is, after all, a view that genetic technology may be very positive in healthcare, but must be rejected at all costs in agriculture. The report rejects this position.

We state quite clearly that there are opportunities in both sectors; in other words, there are opportunities in agriculture as well. Indeed, the report says that genetic technology can contribute towards finding genuine solutions to sustainable development, and I would like to emphasise this point. This is why we are opposed to the de facto moratorium. The Directive on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment was adopted a long time ago. The Member States should have implemented it in national law by October. I sat on the Conciliation Committee with David Bowe at the time, and I never dreamed that so many years later, this de facto moratorium would still be in place. The report says that it must end by 2003. I believe that it should actually end now, because the deadline for the implementation of Directive 220/90 has already passed. Otherwise, SMEs in particular will suffer considerably, as Mrs Müller has already said.

Just as there are not only risks but also major benefits in the agricultural sector, there are not only benefits, but also major risks, in the medical field.

We see a danger, for example, in the uncontrolled use of DNA testing. DNA tests are not services like any other. They may only be carried out after competent, expert, independent and individual counselling, and this counselling must cover medical, ethical, social, psychological and legal aspects. A year ago, our group commissioned an expert report on this issue. This report says that the European Union has competence in this area. Offering DNA testing is either a cross-border service, or DNA tests are products traded in the internal market. This is why we need standards in this area, quality standards and standards relating, for example, to counselling. The Commission has a task here, and I ask the Commission to do what the report says, namely to initiate legislation.


  Linkohr (PSE).(DE) Mr President, I fully endorse the previous speakers' comments, and I assume that there will be a majority in favour of the Damião report tomorrow. There are many reasons for this. The Commissioner is absolutely right to describe biotechnology as the undoubted key to the future. Some have grasped this already; others will take longer to do so, but it is undoubtedly the case.

Mr Liese is absolutely right: biotechnology will also help us find solutions for sustainable development. I would like to add an explanation here, for biotechnology does not work with 'classical' thermodynamics, but with irreversible thermodynamics; in other words, it works with very small potential differences to produce a very substantial impact. Otherwise, we would not grow old, but would leave this mortal coil at the age of 15. In other words, biotechnology has many benefits, and this is widely recognised. Indeed, 'red' biotechnology is already recognised by large sections of the Green Party today. The problem is this: how do we deal with green biotechnology? This may also have to do with the fact that many people in Europe say that they do not need it; they say they have enough to eat, and the problem is distribution, not new products.

There is a very different view in the developing countries, however. For example, if I have a product which can be produced using a minimum amount of water, or have a species of rice which contains specific vitamins, this is a matter of survival for many people in the developing countries. It does not matter to us, because we can buy other products with our large amounts of money.

What does this mean in practice? It means that the development of biotechnology, including green biotechnology, in Europe could help many other people. Let me clear up one misunderstanding at this point, which has also played a role in our own group. It has been claimed that we aim to combat hunger in the world with biotechnology. This is not what is said here. What we say is that biotechnology alone cannot defeat hunger in the world, and that other measures, such as better distribution of the food available, are far more important. That is what it says here. Let me clear up this misunderstanding from the outset. However, biotechnology can make its contribution to reducing hunger in the world.

Let me conclude with one further comment: our conflict here in this House is not that we will reject the Damião report tomorrow, but that we will vote differently during the legislative process. This is why I call on everyone to conduct a much more far-reaching dialogue here in this House, and with the Commission, on these issues. Otherwise we will continue to live with this dichotomy, which we are finding so difficult to cope with.



  Plooij-van Gorsel (ELDR). (NL) Indeed, Mrs Damião’s report is warmly supported by the Group of the European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party. There are two points I should like to make.

The climate in the European Union, the business climate, and also ethics and environment. Despite being a key technology, biotechnology is still a poor relation in Europe and also in my own country the Netherlands. I therefore welcome the strategy of the Committee for biotechnology and life sciences, which is contributing to research and development in Europe. Not only for industry, but also with regard to health care and food safety. This does not, however, alter the fact that the committee has been overtaken by events. After all, did we not, in March 2000, adopt the Purvis report whose intention was to improve the business climate in Europe? Did we not also criticise the Member States over the moratorium on the import of genetically modified products? There is still much to be done in Europe in terms of access to launch capital and to patent rights to create a favourable climate. The patent directive for biotechnological inventions is a demonstrable improvement. This directive from 1998, however, has simply been ignored by the majority of Member States. It has only been implemented by four of the 15 Member States. What does the Commissioner intend to do about it?

Another major obstacle to progress and application are the ethical and environmental concerns. It is of course entirely proper that we as legislators do not ignore these concerns of the consumer. The Commission’s action plan, however, already provides for the initiation of a social debate. It does not therefore seem necessary to me to strengthen this report with paragraphs that regulate communication with society in detail. We do not, after all, have to hold the consumer’s hand. The consumer is perfectly capable of making up his own mind if we provide the right information.


  Figueiredo (GUE/NGL).(PT) Mr President, I should like to send my greetings to Mrs Damião in her absence and to wish her a speedy recovery. I disagree, however, with her report, which her colleague Carlos Lage, has presented to us: it should be noted that this report transcribes in their entirety the positions and interests of the huge biotechnology, agro-chemical and agro-industrial multinationals, as can be seen if we compare the report with the position of UNICE. We call for the de facto moratorium that has been in place since 1998 for the approval of new genetically modified organisms in the food chain to be maintained and we totally reject the report’s support for lifting the moratorium, which we feel would be a real environmental crime.

Apart from the profound ethical and human rights questions about the commercialisation and patenting of life and natural heritage, we must understand that releasing GMOs into the environment is an irreversible and uncontrollable factor which has direct consequences on the pollution of both conventional and organic farming, and for the destruction of biodiversity. It also has incalculable effects on ecosystems. What this means is that organic farmers and consumers will not actually see this much vaunted but fictional freedom of choice. Furthermore, it reinforces the dependency of farmers and of Member States’ food policies on the multinationals. The degree of interference and pressure exerted on developing countries to introduce GMOs into their food chain is shocking. It is truly mystifying and unacceptable that, once again, the idea is being aired that food shortages and world hunger can have a technological solution when the issue – as has been stressed in many international fora and organisations – is a political one and is a matter of policy. We only need think back to the much-feted ‘green revolution’ of a few decades ago. We are committed to promoting the scientific and technological progress of mankind, but we must always respect the precautionary principle.


  Breyer (Verts/ALE).(DE) Mr President, we increasingly see that when biotechnology is referred to, genetic technology is actually what is meant, but this is not stated clearly. For more than 20 years, promises have been made which have then been broken in practice. Genetically modified foods and agricultural products are a flop. The consumers do not want them. In the field of medicine, it is imitation products, above all, which are manufactured in a slightly modified production process so that patents can be obtained and phenomenal prices achieved, with the health insurance funds being ripped off as a result.

I often wonder why we have been discussing these key technologies here for so many years and why these supposedly key technologies do not succeed in the marketplace. Where is the market, in reality? Biotech companies are complete flops on the stock exchange. We have no products which are successful and are accepted in the market. We have simply been 'talking up' this genetic technology for years.

Let me come to my real point. For us, it is completely unacceptable to remove the de facto moratorium, as very few of the Member States have actually implemented the directive on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. I also find what is happening here quite unacceptable. We have the Scheele report, and we have held a debate on the de facto moratorium. We also discussed the Fiori report in very wide and detailed terms, and it was made very clear that we do not want any patenting of human genes. The current report demands the very opposite. There is an obvious reluctance to accept the implementation of what has been called for, for a long time, in the other committees. I think this is farcical and quite unacceptable.

I think we must recognise that we need absolute transparency for consumers, as well as safe foods. Then no one can claim that we are prepared to put the interests of industry ahead of consumer protection simply to push these products on to the market.

With this in mind, I would like to state quite clearly, once again, that much of what is written here does not have our support. Nonetheless, I think it is quite good, and ask you to support our Amendments Nos 26 and 27, which make it clear that coexistence is very important in agriculture, and that the sustainable co-existence of conventional and organic farming should be ensured. The Commission calls for this as well.


  Montfort (NI).(FR) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, although Mrs Damião’s report needs some modification, it is an excellent report. While highlighting the constraints on the development of biotechnology and life sciences, it demonstrates their role and importance to our society in a pertinent manner. It is fully in line with the approaches and strategies defined at the Lisbon European Council. Biotechnology and life sciences are undoubtedly key in building a more competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy. This report also throws all its weight behind the Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Development, a programme I strongly support. Biotechnology will bring a new and broader dimension to the economy in future. It has implications for farming, nutrition, the environment, and, of course, medicine and the treatment of illness. Biotechnology also has implications for our competitiveness and the development of employment, increasing both the quantity and quality of jobs. However, this does not mean that a free rein should be given to research in this area. Biotechnology cannot be allowed to dominate over everything else. We are faced with an extraordinarily rich scientific field, many areas of which are still unknown and have yet to be exploited. There are two aspects to this area of science, but one of them does not always present what is best for mankind and the well–being of our societies. We must be wary of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Life sciences should be supported and encouraged, but they must be regulated. Life sciences must only be allowed to grow and expand within the bounds of strict regulations, all of which should prioritise the principles of public health, prevention, precaution and the respect for human life and dignity. I am sure you understand that I have in mind the problems posed by GMOs and research on human embryos. I am therefore pleased to see that the report reflects these concerns and I also commend the work of the Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy to establish better regulations on research and to improve information given to the consumer.

In this spirit, we must do everything possible to improve the financing of companies in this sector and to allow them access to risk capital. These companies are generally very young, often small, and therefore vulnerable. We must also encourage the development of researchers in our universities and facilitate their laboratory work within the spirit of the European Charter for Small Enterprises. Research forms the basis of our future competitiveness.

We must also remember, however, we cannot have science without awareness. All sciences worthy of the name must be aware of their role in society. Biotechnology is certainly the key to a new society, which, if we manage it well, will be more just and more equitable.

Finally, I would like to comment on how this affects developing countries. Although we act to combat hunger, poverty and disease, which are all holding back development in these countries, we do not have the right to impose a scientific model or a way of thinking on any country. We need to uphold the principle of respect for others. Therefore we cannot consider imposing science and technology as a means of development. It is up to each individual to choose how they want to feed themselves and what standards they want to live by.

Ladies and gentlemen, biotechnology is the third technological revolution for our society, following the industrial revolution and the information revolution. I fervently hope that will rise to this splendid challenge, and that, in the interests of Europe’s reputation and of our children’s future, we act with respect for basic ethical standards and human dignity at all times.


  Purvis (PPE-DE). – Mr President, firstly I too would like to wish Mrs Damião a speedy recovery and sincerely congratulate her for an excellent report. It will add to the encouragement which the biotechnology sector needs in order to realise its potential in my Scottish constituency and throughout Europe. The thrust of this report is fully in line with the Lisbon Summit objectives and continues the forward-looking attitude consistently demonstrated by Parliament. It should also serve to bolster the Commission's new-found courage as regards biotechnology and the life sciences.

But how dreadful the contrast with the Council of Ministers who yet again this week demonstrated their abject failure to follow through on the goals they set at Lisbon. The grossly mistitled 'Competitiveness Council' could not reach consensus about the proper jurisdiction for Community patent disputes. What hope is there of achieving Europe's potential in this area when the Council is at least one year behind the deadline it set itself for agreement on this vital matter? Without a cost-efficient means of patenting intellectual property rights, what incentive is there for our scientists? This is only one example of the chronic foot-dragging we see endlessly in the Council and by individual Member States. Moratoria, legal uncertainty, backtracking and dithering over ethical guidelines, transposition delays, lack of support for those going about their legal business with field trials, elaborate red tape for labelling and traceability.

Mrs Damião, thank you for giving us hope that there is real hope in Europe for biotechnology and the life sciences.


  Karlsson (PSE). (SV) Mr President, the future presents both threats and opportunities. Biotechnology and life sciences are areas which arouse both fear and enthusiasm. There is good reason not to rush into believing that these offer solutions to all the problems we see before us. At the same time, we should not be frightened simply because we do not have the answers to all the questions.

The Union has highlighted life sciences as an area which will help to make Europe the most knowledge-based and competitive economy. Used correctly, biotechnology can offer solutions to many of the problems we will all face.

In order to counter the threats to the environment, we need not only restrictions in our lives but also new discoveries which can help us tackle the threats to the environment technically, mechanically and biologically. In this context, biotechnology offers many opportunities. The fight against poverty and famine in the developing countries requires various initiatives in order to succeed. We should not overestimate biotechnology, but nor should we underestimate it. Crops which tolerate different temperatures and levels of drought and rainfall may help to ensure that there is food in areas which currently experience famine. A society which seeks to develop prosperity and justice, and which wants more and more people to be able to live in acceptable environments must ensure economic growth.

Many mature industries are failing today, which means we need new ones. Biotechnology is one such and one of the most promising. Let us within the Community invest common resources in order to continue developing together and moving forward. It is not enough to state that we have to be successful, we must also act. This involves adopting Mrs Damião’s report – positive action which bodes well for the future.


  Davies (ELDR). – Mr President, you do not have to be an implacable opponent of GMOs – and I am not – to challenge the undiluted advocacy of them in this report. Many Liberal Democrats will be challenging the report in the vote tomorrow.

We want to see a reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides. We want to see insects and wild plants flourish in our countryside. We want sustainable agriculture in developing nations. But we need to know that the proposed solution is not the cause of even greater problems.

We hear claims from the manufacturers, intent as they are with stuffing their pockets with gold and making sure that farmers across the globe are locked into their supply chain. But where is the scientific evidence about the medium- and long-term effects of GM crops upon biodiversity? Who is going to compensate organic producers whose crops become contaminated and lose their value? We need answers to these questions before we open the floodgates.

The jury is still out regarding GM crops and, given the irreversible nature of these decisions, there is no sound basis for making claims that biotechnology will be the answer to all our problems.


  President. – The debate is closed.(1)

The vote will take place tomorrow at 12 noon.

(The sitting was closed at 00.10 a.m.)


(1) Dates for next part-session: see Minutes.

Last updated: 26 July 2004Legal notice