Biotech in Countries Starting with “I” – Part 11: Italy (secondo)

This is a guest post from Susan K Finston, President of Finston Consulting. Do you have a response to Susan’s post? Respond in the comments section below.

skf-headshot-jun2015The run-up to Christmas in Italy is a magical experience, and a great time to revisit Italian agricultural biotechnology. Readers of this irregular series may recall an earlier entry on Italy, noting its persistent 3rd place in the EU (though ahead of Ireland).

To recap: Italy boasts a strong tradition of innovative life sciences, and led the EU in agricultural innovation and research throughout the 20th century. Starting in 2001 though, Italy curtailed research funding for agro-biotech, hamstringing its competitiveness and reducing productivity.  In the absence of domestically produced GM products,  Italy became dependent on imported GM corn and soy. So far from being a GMO-free state, it is now recognized that GE ag products are widespread and essential inputs for “Made in Italy” exports, including pasta, regional cheeses, Prosciutto and others.

In 2014 Italian farmers and scientists appealed to  Senator for Life and highly respected scientist Elena Cattaneo to weigh in on the issue in favor of science and advancing technology for Italy’s struggling agricultural sector.  Cattaneo responded positively, calling on Italy to adopt a science-based position favoring GE agriculture:

GE crops are not more risky than non-GE or organic ones. Moreover, the scientific community has clearly expressed the usefulness and safety of GE crops, calling for further research and testing of these products in field trials in Italy. Therefore, the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ should be abandoned and Member States should allow the cultivation of approved GE crops.

(Translation curtesy of the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, p. 18.)  This exchange had little apparent impact.

While the EU approved limited cultivation of select GE crops based on scientific consensus, an Italian Inter-ministerial Decree officially banned planting of GE crops in January of 2015. Italy then pressed for a new exception to EU regulations to enable opt-out for non-science reasons. The EU acceded, publishing the Amended Directive in March 2015 (Directive (EU) 2015/412).

Now in 2016 Italy has signaled a possible way out of its (self-imposed) biotech ghetto.

Earlier this month I attended a fascinating panel: “Technology and food innovation: a shared transatlantic challenge,” panelists here, hosted by the Embassy of Italy to celebrate the first annual International Week of Italian Cuisine.  The November 16th event featured academic and industrial researchers discussing agricultural technology and its role in sustainability, productivity, efficiency and even innovative food tech for the International Space Station.

Italy’s commitment to address 21st century food challenges explicitly includes agricultural biotechnology methods.  Earlier this year the Ministry of Agriculture initiated a three-year €21 Million Sustainable Biotech program for next-generation technologies, seeking benefits of agricultural biotechnology with new GE techniques – and without the old GMO baggage.  As Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economic Analysis (CREA) asserts, this research focuses on molecular techniques and field plan pheno-typing that are “far away from the GMO method.”   CREA may be right, or Italy may be pouring new wine into old bottles.  

Either way it is beginning to feel like Christmas for Italian Agro-biotechnology.  Prosecco anyone?

About Susan K. Finston:

President of Finston Consulting LLC since 2005, Susan works with innovative clients ranging from start-up to Fortune-100 companies, trade associations, foundations and NGOs, providing support for legal, transactional, policy and “doing business” issues. Susan has extensive experience relating to intellectual property and knowledge-economy issues in advanced developing countries including India and South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. She also works with governments, and NGOs on capacity building and educational programs. Together with biotechnology pioneer Ananda Chakrabarty, she also is co-founder of Amrita Therapeutics Ltd., a microbiome drug developer. Previous experience includes 5.5 years with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), where she led the international  patent reform advocacy in the MENA region and South Asia (India) and 11 years as a career Foreign Service Officer (FSO) at the US Department of State in Washington DC, and overseas in London, Tel Aviv, and Manila.

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