A working group consisting of Europes leading research, food and biotech organizations have developed a vision for the future of European plant biotechnology. Philipe Busquin, the EU Research Chief, announced the initiative, 2025: a European Vision for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology today in Brussels.
The paper outlines the role plant biotechnology can play in addressing emerging socio-economic issues, including energy, and details a set of research goals that will later be fleshed out in more detail. Among the top goals is the utilization of biotechnology to improve biofuels. From the paper:
Develop more efficient biofuels. This ambitious goal can be reached by increasing the variety of plants that contribute to the renewable resource base, improving the conversion process for plants that are currently used as biofuels, and developing new plant types that produce oils which can be used efficiently as an energy source and could also be used in food packaging.
The authors walk a tightrope with respect to Genetically Modified (GM) plants -- an area of heated contention among the European community, and much counter-biotech activism.
The much-debated genetic modification (GM) of plants is one of the biotechnologies used, depending on the specific challenges to be addressed, but we should not make the fundamental mistake of equating agricultural and plant biotechnology with GM alone. Genetic modification of plants is not the only technology in the toolbox of modern plant biotechnologies.
The basic points they make (correct in my view) are:
The world faces a number of problems in different areas of sustainability.
Plant biotechnology can and will play a major role in addressing those problems.
Inaction on the EUs part will cause the EU to fall behind in a major area of required competence in the 21st century.
Philipe Busquin warned:
Despite Europe having been at the forefront of plant science and biotechnology, [Europes] leading position has drastically deteriorated in recent years, due to public concerns over the impact of these technologies, insufficient communication of the benefits, and lack of a strategic research programme.
The EU hopes to correct all that. The hardest part is not going to be the science -- it is going to be educating a hostile and fearful public. Increasingly difficult external conditions (climate change, energy supply) may smooth that process, but that outcome is certainly not guaranteed.