BIOTECHNOLOGY HAS a key role to play in producing more affordable and healthy foods, helping the environment and boosting the competitiveness of agriculture, according to a new EU strategy paper.

With the world‘s population set to grow from 6 to 9 billion over the next 50 years, and with fossil fuels bound to diminish, the need for food, bio-fuels and bio-materials will increase, it claims.

But, despite Europe having once been at the forefront of plant science and biotechnology, its leading position has been undermined by public concerns over the impact of these technologies, said EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin.

“This is alarming in view of the challenges Europe is facing – providing a growing world population with more healthy foodstuffs and replacing fossil-based materials with bio-materials made from renewable plant resources.”

While US biotech firms spend €650 million a year on R&D, their EU counterparts invest only €400 million, notes the report.

Last year, the American government launched a National Plant Genome Initiative with a total budget of €1.1 billion from 2003 to 2008. EU15 support is estimated to be around €80 million annually.

The report has been welcomed by EU farmers organization COPA which agrees that biotechnology can help address the major socio-economic challenges of the next 50 year

In particular, it could lead to reduced pesticide use, enhanced natural resistance to disease and the emergence of new materials such as bio-degradable plastics and bio-fuels.

The vision paper also calls for a European technology platform on plant biotechnology research to be set up, aimed at developing strategic research, boosting investment and improving societies‘ understanding of the science.