Australasian Biotechnology, Vol. 10 No. 1, 2000, pp. 33-35
Code Number: au00014
BIOCOG: the Commonwealth Biotechnology Consultative Group
'Consistent with safeguarding human health and ensuring environment protection, that Australia capture the benefits of biotechnology for the Australian community, industry and the environment.'The Australian Government's vision for biotechnology
The emergence of modern biotechnology presents new challenges for Australian industry, research and government.
The ownership of intellectual property is becoming increasingly important in agriculture, with implications for farm management practices and profitability. Investment in biotechnology research needs to be encouraged, so that commercialisation of Australian technology is maximised. The potential risks involved in biotechnology research and its application also require assessment and management.
Australia has significant strengths in biotechnology.
We enjoy a large public investment in R&D, and a strong international reputation in medical and agricultural research. We have relatively low R&D costs by world standards, and a large stock of genetic resources of economically important plants, animals, and microorganisms. In addition, our biodiverse ecosystems provide us with unique genetic resources with the possibility of demonstrating novel properties. Australia also has an excellent research infrastructure to foster development of new biotechnology innovations.
However, we must acknowledge that our research sector is small in comparison to the world leaders in biotechnology. In addition, private sector investment in commercialising biotechnology innovations is limited, meaning that only a few products of Australian gene technology research have so far reached the market. There is a need for a well established and energetic venture capital market with an interest in biotechnology, and a need to effectively protect Australian intellectual property.A biotechnology strategy for Australia
To address these needs, in September 1998 the Government announced its intention to develop a comprehensive strategy to position Australia to benefit from the development of biotechnology. A Biotechnology Consultative Group (BIOCOG), comprised of leading individuals from industry and research and representatives from Government agencies, was formed to guide the development of this strategy (Appendix 1). BIOCOG, headed by Tony Bates (President, Australian Business Ltd), reports to the Biotechnology Ministerial Council. The Ministerial Council is chaired by Senator the Hon. Nick Minchin, Minister for Industry, Science and Resources. The other members are Senator the Hon. Robert Hill, Minister for the Environment and Heritage; the Hon. Dr Michael Wooldridge, MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care; and the Hon. Dr David Kemp, MP, Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs.
Following consultation with BIOCOG and other interested parties, the Government announced a series of measures intended to assist the development and application of biotechnology in Australia, while ensuring human health and the environment were protected. These measures were announced in the 11 May 1999 Budget Statement.
The measures included the creation of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) to regulate the development, production and use of genetically modified organisms and their products where this was not already performed by an existing regulatory body, and the establishment of Biotechnology Australia (BA), to address non-regulatory aspects of biotechnology and to coordinate the Commonwealth's biotechnology activities.Biotechnology Australia
Biotechnology Australia (BA) is a multi-portfolio agency that reports to a Commonwealth Ministerial Council on Biotechnology. It has members from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (ISR); the Department of Health and Aged Care; Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry - Australia; the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs; and Environment Australia; and operates from within ISR. BA's principal tasks are to:
The national strategy has been developed in comprehensive consultation with a broad range of stakeholders and the public. It will address a broad range of issues, including commercialisation of Australian research, and public awareness. It will also provide a framework for ongoing cooperation between the Commonwealth Government, State and Territory Governments, industry, the research sector and community groups.
The proposals will be further considered by Government, and an announcement is expected in mid 2000.Biotechnology Consultative Group
BIOCOG was established in December 1998 to provide advice to the Government on the development of a Biotechnology Action Agenda.
With the establishment of BA, BIOCOG's role was expanded to provide advice to BA and the Ministerial Council on the development and implementation of the National Biotechnology Strategy, the priority issues for consideration in biotechnology, and consultation processes to be undertaken with stakeholders.
Members include experts on industry, higher education, research, ethics, environmental and nutrition matters. The Group also includes representatives from Commonwealth Departments to ensure a joint public and private sector approach.
Issues addressed by BIOCOG have included: how to ensure Australia maximises its private and public sector investments in biotechnology research; what strategies need to be adopted to encourage greater commercialisation of biotechnology research; identification of impediments to private sector investment in biotechnology research; and the effectiveness of Australia's present management of biotechnology intellectual property.Biotechnology Australia Activities
A number of consultation activities have assisted in developing the National Biotechnology Strategy.
BA released a discussion paper, Developing Australia's Biotechnology Future, in September 1999. As well as being a key step in the development of the national biotechnology strategy, the paper has played a useful role in raising public awareness of the important issues requiring consideration.
Advertisements were placed in the national press requesting public comments on the paper and inviting participation in the public consultation fora. These fora were conducted in each state and territory capital city, and representatives from industry, researchers and community interest groups attended.
The Australian Biotechnology Report, a joint ISR and Ernst & Young publication, was released in October 1999. This provides a snapshot of the emerging Australian biotechnology industry, identifying its strategic advantages and growth potential, and discussing the current limitations. Future editions will analyse growth in the industry and advances in Australian biotechnology.
BA has also commissioned a number of formal studies to analyse the likely impacts of biotechnology in major application sectors, including pharmaceuticals and human health, mining and energy, industrial processes, food processing, invasive species, environment, animal production, and plant industries and forestry. These studies assess the likely implication of these impacts for competitiveness, capabilities and structure in each of the sectors.
BA has consulted widely in developing the Strategy, including with State and Territory Governments, representatives of industry and commercialisation organisations, CSIRO, the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Rural Research and Development Corporations.
BIOCOG members participated in several of these activities, and assessed the responses received during the consultation process.Public Awareness Program
One of BA's other major tasks is supporting a public awareness and information program to help the community understand the opportunities that biotechnology offers, as well as the ways in which any potential risks are handled.
The need for an information program provided by Government has been identified by consumer groups, educationalists, the science community and industry, and most recently by the Consensus Conference on Gene Technology in the Food Chain.
A number of initial activities have been conducted under the program to provide the public with balanced information on biotechnology.
In addition, BA carried out one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys of community attitudes towards gene technology in Australia, as a basis for a broader public awareness program.
The survey found that the majority of Australians are eager for more quality information about the technology, and confirmed the need to provide consumers with more information about the science and its applications in food and crops, and the regulatory systems in place to protect people and the environment.
BA has produced a brochure on genetically modified foods for distribution by supermarkets, in consultation WITH the CSIRO, the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. The brochure addresses key issues of how biotechnology is applied in food production, and explains the regulatory framework for genetically modified foods. The brochure was released nationally in January 2000.
A Gene Technology Information Service free-call service has recently been launched to meet the growing community need for balanced information on gene technology. The service will provide easy access to reliable information on gene technology, ranging from a basic explanation of genetic modification to issues involving the regulation of products derived from gene technology and testing for food safety. It is available by phoning 1800 631 276.
Further information can be obtained from BA's website: www.isr.gov.au/ba
Mr Tony Bates Chairman, Technico Pty Ltd. Immediate Past President, Australian Business Ltd.Members
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