Science in Society Archive

Beware the New Biotech Eurovision

The biotech industry is promoting a vision for plant biotechnology through the European Commission. Rhea Gala reports

European Commission letting GM in by the back door?

In a little noticed development in June 2004, the European Commission announced that, "Leading representatives from research, the food and biotech industry, the farming community and consumers' organisations presented to European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin a long-term vision for European plant biotechnology towards 2025."

This initiative represents the latest stage in a process that will culminate in the establishment of a EU biotechnology strategic research agenda by the end of this year, and despite reference to "the farming community and consumers' organisations", it has been led by the biotech industry.

As GM food has already proved to be a failure, not just in Europe, but globally, and with daily reports of the propaganda of GM companies revealed as lies, why is the EU still willing to promote and fund this research? Once again, false claims are made about the need for GM technology to feed people in developing countries where there are already well-proven safe and sustainable alternatives (see Greening Ethiopia series, SiS 23, for example); and for increasing food quality and biodiversity, which GM has singularly failed to deliver.

Who are the players?

The 21-page "Plants for the future" vision paper was drafted by the 'Genval Group' in cooperation with the European Commission. The Genval Group of twenty-two consists of representatives from companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and Nestle; and the project is supported by an influential "group of personalities" from the biotech industry and academia: the European Research Commissioner himself, Philippe Busquin, Feike Sijbesma, president of EuropaBio (the European Bioindustries Association), and Marc Zabeau, President of the European Plant Science Organisation, EPSO.

Busquin says the vision paper is a milestone in setting up a technology platform "comprising an Advisory Council and working groups, open to the stakeholders supporting this vision paper, Member States, and other interested parties and experts", and due to deliver a strategic research agenda by the end of 2004. Partners to this Advisory Council, funded by the EU, are EuropaBio (which has 35 corporate members operating worldwide, and 25 national biotech associations), and EPSO.

The Technology platform titled "Plant Genomics and Biotechnology Technology Platform" (PGBTP) or "TP Plants and Health" for short, will runs for 32 months, from 1 June 2004 to 31 January 2007, with a remit to

  • Establish a stakeholder forum: Groups and Committees of Technology Platform.
  • Articulate coherent Strategic Research Agenda 2025 and Action Plan 2010.
  • Collaborate with Policy Makers and Private Investors: Start to implement Action Plan 2010.
  • Monitor and revise the Action Plan 2010 and future of Technology Platform.

Clearly, this alliance intends to promote biotechnology in Europe over the long term, but how will it persuade the people to accept it?

What is the pitch?

The 'vision' document insists, "Europeans owe it to themselves and to future generations to build a scientifically solid and ethically sound foundation for developing this exciting field". "Europeans should not lose sight of the enormous social, economic and environmental rewards of this cutting-edge field" "Europe cannot afford to miss out on the benefits offered by plant genomics and biotechnololgy" etc, etc.

'Sustainability' has been co-opted: "There is a limit to how much our planet can take. To guarantee our well-being - and that of future generations - we must make sure that we live in a sustainable manner. This means that sustainability is both a means of ensuring our prosperity and a constant goal to strive for in the future".

Three short, medium and long-term strategic priorities are listed.

Better quality food?

Priority 1. To produce better quality, affordable, diverse food offering consumers in and beyond Europe real options to improve their quality of life.

This will be achieved by developing plants containing more essential macro and micro-nutrients. The mention of 'diverse' food and 'real options' refers to "enhancing the consumer's freedom to choose between conventional, organic and GM food". Co-existence of GM with natural crops is thus taken for granted: "the EU must ensure that GM, conventional and organic crops can be grown side by side using a balanced approach that neither prevents or favours any of them. Nothing is said about recovering and promoting diverse crop plants and food sources.

Environmental and agricultural sustainability?

Priority 2. To bring about environmental and agricultural sustainability, including biomaterials, bioenergy and renewable resources.

The "ambitious research agenda" does not say how it proposes to meet this priority, although it says it will "improve countryside biodiversity" by "developing plants that can be grown with reduced cultivation, inputs and end-product processing. This would help prevent soil erosion and reduce the use of agricultural inputs, energy and water". Is the average weed or tree not perfectly adequate already?

The research agenda also aims to "reduce the environmental impact of agriculture"… "by developing plant varieties that need less fertilizer, water and other agro-chemical inputs while producing the same high yields", and to "improve the genetic diversity of crop plants". It fails to mention that industrial agriculture always reduces genetic diversity.

Enhancing the competitiveness of European agriculture?

Priority 3. To enhance the competitiveness of European agriculture, industry and forestry.

This is not mentioned per se in the research agenda, but is often referred to in the general text of the paper. It laments Europe's more restrictive political and regulatory framework compared to major competitors in the USA, Japan and China, stating, "The wrong mix of regulations can leave innovators bound up in red tape. The right mix and it rolls out the red carpet for them"… "leading to massive improvements in our quality of life and its sustainability". The paper expresses regret at the smaller investment in R&D in Europe compared to its main competitors, and the fact that 99.5% of GM crops are grown outside the EU. It states that new GM derived products will be allowed to enter the European market soon and acceptance by consumers will affect more than 15 million European farms. It fails to mention that acceptance will put many more farmers off the land, because of the industrial and large-scale nature of GM farming.

Resisting this vision

Representatives of these multinationals, having played a significant role in bringing about climate change by the over-exploitation of non-renewable fossil fuel resources, and in causing an epidemic of diabetes and other chronic illnesses through the aggressive promotion of monoculture crops and processed 'junk' food, are now positioning themselves to offer new solutions to problems that they have helped to create. The document informs us that fossil fuels are polluting, and that people have a growing awareness of health problems associated with eating habits, and that their biotechnology 'vision' will aid us in the fight against global warming, and rising world population.

The agenda behind this technology platform is to take us further down the path to the corporate control of the global food economy. It cannot succeed without recourse to intellectual property rights, which steal all past publicly funded research and development from the public domain, and distort future R&D priorities for the public sector.

These companies - Monsanto, Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta etc. - currently pushing for deregulation and increased profitability, are also at the forefront of the onslaught of GMOs globally yet will take no responsibility for adverse consequences.

The paper repeatedly mentions sustainability and biodiversity as though they were part of the vision, but are in reality diametrically opposed to the sort of science and technology being promoted.

This new biotech Eurovision is more dangerous than the old. It is dressed up in 'sustainable agriculture' clothing and has the potential to completely undermine it. Write to the European Commission to firmly reject it now.

Article first published 29/10/04


  1. "Plants for the future": a 2025 vision for European plant biotechnology, News alert 24 June 2004,
  2. PGBTP: Plant genomics and biotechnology technology platform, www.epsoweb.orgcatalog/TP/ssa-summary.pdf
  3. "2025: a European vision for plant genomics and biotechnology",

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