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Use of plant genetics in conventional agriculture "held back"

The successful application of new tools and methods in plant genetics to conventional farming is being held back in the European Union by the lack of a coherent research strategy and the impact of legislation, according to a report published today (24 May 2004) by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC).

The report identifies a number of ways in which plant genetics could improve agricultural methods other than through genetic modification, and calls for spending levels on research in the European Union to match those in North America. It also recommends that Member States give more help to the development of plant genetics in developing countries.

Professor Gian Tommaso Scarascia-Mugnozza, chair of the working group that produced the report, said: There is a major opportunity for policy-makers across the European Union, in the Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers, to capitalise on the exciting new era in plant genetics. But we need a more co-ordinated approach and funding to realise the potential benefits that this area of science offers conventional farming.

He added: Until recently, much of the research on crops in the European Union has been carried out in public institutions, which is the main focus of this report. However we recognise that most crop research is now carried out in the private sector, and that, in the present political climate, many companies are pessimistic about the future of research on plant genetics and of its application in Europe. It is evident that they are reducing their in-house research located in the European Union, and this is having an impact on the level of funding in universities.

Professor Edoardo Vesentini, Vice-Chairman of EASAC, said: The controversy over the genetic modification of crops has obscured recent achievements in conventional breeding, such as cross-bred varieties of oilseed rape, cotton, soy and maize that are tolerant of weedkillers or resistant to insects. Some scientists have likened the potential impact of the new plant genetics on conventional crop breeding to that of the jet engine on air travel.

The report highlights the use of new tools and methods in plant genetics to create new industries, such as the production of crop plants that can be used as renewable fuels or as more environmentally-friendly sources of chemicals.

The report also supports proposals to create banks of seeds and plant varieties and urges the European Commission and Council of Ministers to focus more on the regulation of plant genetics and engaging the public as consumers about research developments.

Professor Scarascia-Mugnozza, said: The Commission and Parliament need to be more aware of the way in which the development of policies in areas such as energy, chemicals and recycling can accidentally restrict research into crop plants.

He added: In addition to identifying research priorities for agriculture in the expanded European Union, it will be important for both the Commission and the Parliament to consider the potential for developing partnerships with developing countries.

1 The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) was established in 2001 to provide a means for the national academies of Europe to work together to inject high quality science into European Union policy-making. Its task is building science into policy at EU level by providing independent, expert, credible advice about the scientific aspects of public policy issues to those who make or influence policy for the EU. EASAC is designed to combine ease and speed of operation, with the unrivalled prestige and authority of the national academies of science and with the opportunities that come from ready access to the networks of members and colleagues that constitute academies.

For further information about EASAC, see its website at

For further information about this news release, contact:

Bob Ward on 020-7451 2516 or 07811-320346.

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