Research: Commission highlights the new challenges for Food and Agriculture

The changing attitude of European society to research in food and agriculture demands that researchers pay more attention to the concerns of the public and other stakeholders

Today in Brussels, the annual Euragri conference, entitled “Science for Society – Science with Society” and sponsored by the European Commission, addressed European consumers’ concerns and proposed new goals, roles and rules to respond better and quicker to the needs of society. Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin presented EU initiatives in this area, and called for a European platform on plant science to be formed on the basis of a network of national research programmes. Within the forthcoming 6th EU Research Framework Programme (FP6 2003-2006), €685 million have been earmarked for food quality and safety.

Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin said: “New technologies, that can bring real benefits to citizens and improve the competitiveness of European agriculture, should not be discarded through ignorance and prejudice. Instead we must work to balance governance and freedom of research to allow the advance of science, and adopt a level-headed approach to evaluate the risks, costs and benefits of each new development. Europe has huge potential to be harnessed through the European Research Area.”

The attitude of European society to research in food and agriculture is changing. Citizens demand safer and healthier food, quality rather than quantity, the right to know and choose where their food comes from and more ethical treatment of farm animals. Recent controversies have highlighted the need for agricultural research and further information on the origins of food products.

The research community and regulatory authorities must consider this when implementing research strategy. Above all, there is a critical need for more dialogue between the various stakeholders, in particular between the researchers and the general public. Researchers need to pay more attention to the concerns and sensitivities of citizens, whilst the general public needs to understand the benefits of new agricultural technologies.

The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is an example of this. The use and development of genetically modified crops is increasing in many countries worldwide, but in Europe they are subject to increasingly stringent regulation, for example through the new Directive on the deliberate release of GMOs (2001/18/EC) that enters into force on 17 October 2002. Nevertheless, their use remains controversial and subject to criticism. Several GMO research field trials have been vandalised over the last months across Europe. As a result, industrial GMO research facilities have relocated to other shores.
This is likely to have serious consequences on European competitiveness. In the EU, agricultural production alone is worth €220 billion a year and the industry employs 7.5 million people. The food industry is responsible for the jobs of 2.6 million workers and is valued at €600 billion. An open, science-based dialogue between all stakeholders for and against GMOs is therefore crucial.

To promote this, the Commission is hosting roundtable meetings on GMO safety research, bringing together European bio-safety researchers and other stakeholders, such as consumer organisations, environmental NGOs, national administrations and industry. Through this, the Commission seeks to foster the GMO debate by establishing a continuous discussion forum on the research results of the benefits and risks of GMOs. The Commission has been supporting 81 bio-safety research projects for a total EC funding of €70 million for over 15 years. Together, these projects involved over 400 teams from all parts of Europe.

The Commission aims to create a true European Research Area, linking national research programmes and maximising the wealth expertise in Europe. The forthcoming Sixth Framework programme provides concrete tools to develop such an approach. ERA-NET is an example of this. It is a specific instrument to encourage and support networking and attempts to link up national research programmes. In addition, considerable resources have been allocated to the priority of “Food quality and safety” with €685 million over the four years of the programme. The new opportunities in this sector will be detailed at the launch conference in Brussels on 11-13 November 2002.

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