GE - Poll Finds Europeans Mistrust State And Science

Date: 97-10-09 16:47:34 EDT
Poll Finds Europeans Mistrust State And Science By Niccolo Sarno

BRUSSELS, Oct 6 (IPS) When it comes to advice on the safety of biotechnological innovation, most Europeans believe that the greater the distance from manufacturers and officials, the more trustworthy the source.

An opinion poll of purchasers across the European Union put independent consumer organisations, followed by environmental protection groups, as by far the most trusted source of advice on the new generation of bioengineered products now appearing in shops world wide and presently transforming medical science.

Public confidence in the two's views was far ahead of that vested in industry, political parties and trade unions, and even that given to public agencies and religious bodies. In part a measure of the contribution of independent NGOs to the debate, the poll, released last week, also showed the depth of doubt among EU citizens facing radical changes in biological science.

The two biotechnological development that most concern EU citizens are the introduction of human genes into animals to produce organs for human transplants and the use of modern biotechnlogy in food production.

Sixty one percent tended to agree that the innovations posed a risk, found the survey, conducted by International Research Associates for the EU's executive Commission. Though most did not see the science itself as either purely good or purely bad, seven out of 10 expected that dangerous new diseases will be created in the next 20 years through the development of bioengineering.

The study acknowledges that experts often seem to fail to understand public concerns, and that the general public appears insufficiently informed about modern biotechnology.

Nevertheless, fear of biotechnology is not the result of ignorance. ''It is rather the case that those who are the most ignorant on the subject tend to be less concerned,'' the survey authors concluded. ''Being more informed does not necessarily mean bei ng less worried.''

''Consumers are concerned about the long term environmental effects of releasing new genetically engineerd organisms into delicately balanced ecosystems,'' says Consumers International (CI), a global alliance of more than 200 consumer groups.

''Because the effects are so difficult to predict, it is vital to have internationally agreed and enforceable rules for research protocols, field trials, and post marketing surveillance.''

The CI voice special concern about field trials of new biotechnology in developing countries, where there is often a lack of regulation to protect individuals. Others are concerned at the way that genetic material is being patented for commercial purpose s by transnational corporations.

Confronted by these concerns, the Commission issued a directive upholding the bioengineers' rights. The directive effectively confirmed the legal right to 'own' biological material while nominally restricting patenting of actual varieties of flora.

It was immediately slammed by Green party members of the European Parliament and NGOs. The Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) warns that while the directive says that plant and animals cannot be patented, it is still possible to patent plant and animal biological material as long as the end product is not called a 'variety'.

''This (directive) is a major setback for all of us who have been fighting for the sustainable management of biodiversity in the hands of local communities,'' says Henk Hobbelink, GRAIN's director.

GRAIN says that farmers now freely using seeds could be expected to seek permission and pay royalties in the future if the genetic makeup of the seed they use is later patented. Plant material recognised for hardiness and high yield is being sought out,

especially in the developing world, by bioengineers and is being quickly patented by their employers.

''Many examples already exist where companies take local varieties from these farmers and patent them and their genetic contents without innovation. The directive negates the rights of the 'original breeders' from the South,'' claims GRAIN.

Experts say that the directive circumvents the European Patent Convention's existing ban on the patenting of plant varieties, by allowing companies to patent entire crops, such as transgenic soya beans. The directive in its current form would legalise su ch patents and effectively concentrate crop research in the hands of a few biotech corporations, they add.

The 1992 Rio Biodiversity Convention, signed by all the EU member states, explicity requires signatories to ensure that patent systems protect the historic rights of use of traditional farmers. The directive is silent on this obligation.

The eventual decison of the European Parliament to pass the directive in the face of Green opposition in July drew special fire.

By allowing the EU to declare that genes could be 'inventions', European parliamentarians ''sold out to the pharmaceutical and biotech industry,'' says geneticist Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Women's Environmental Networks' spokesperson

With the parliament's verdict in hand the matter goes to the EU's ruling Council, which is likely to adopt a position in November. At least three EU countries are considering fighting parts of the ruling, taking it to the European Court if necessary. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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