TR: But biotech companies would seem to have the most to gain from consumer acceptance of GM foods, so shouldn’t they bear most of the educational responsibility?
Barber: They should bear some responsibility, and in more recent years, they have put effort into this. There is something called Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe, which is a program that some of the companies have put money into to try to provide materials for outreach into the food chain and to citizens, and in some schools. It’s not all-encompassing, but we are making real efforts to do that.
TR: Some agricultural biotech companies, such as Syngenta, have reduced or halted research in Europe due to consumer resistance and regulatory inactivity. How does the industry perceive current regulations?
Barber: I don’t think that the regulatory machine in the EU is running consistently yet. If you’re using this technology to develop a product and you want to have it on the market in 10 years, if the machine isn’t running consistently, you never know whether you’ll get your product to market. So perhaps one would move one’s research somewhere else, where there’s a history of consistent application of the regulation.
TR: Will some of these companies eventually return?
Barber: Until the question of how the regulatory system is going to run – is it going to run at an even speed, or is it going to be run in a discriminatory way in some countries? – is sorted out, people will probably think very carefully about that. For instance, it’s very difficult to do field trials here now. In the interest of transparency, researchers make the locations of field trials known, and many of them are destroyed every year by people with a conviction against anybody using the technology. So that is part of the judgment a company that is interested in using these technologies has to make about where it does its basic research. Europe is one of the centers of origin of this technology, in Belgium at Ghent University, 25 years ago. And I think it’s a sad thing that not just industry but also the public institutions have been much reduced in their plant science activity because of the way things have gone here. Universities are finding people don’t want to get involved in plant science because they don’t see a future for it. But we still have a commitment from companies here to continue. Bayer CropScience, which is a German company, recently opened a new facility for plant science research in Belgium, for instance. The industry does want to see this move forward, and they really do think that plant science in Europe is important.
TR: Will GM foods and crops ever enjoy the acceptance level in Europe that they have in the United States?
Barber: I would like to think so. It may be a good many years away. But if you look to see how the technology is being used to date, it’s provided benefits to farmers. I think it’s a very, very sad thing that a lot of people in the West living in urban areas don’t perceive a benefit to a farmer as a benefit to themselves, because they are benefits to us. But this is also an opportunity to diversify the way we use plants to meet some other needs in a more environmentally sustainable way. I hope eventually we’ll see Europe embrace the technology and move down these roads. It’s a tool. We say “GM,” and we think of one or two crops. But it’s a tool that we can use to do a multitude of useful things.