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New Swiss GM ban

Scientists raise concerns about the new law's potential effects on research

By | December 1, 2005

Swiss voters this week (November 27) approved a five-year agricultural ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Switzerland is not a member of the EU, and the new law will have no effect on GMO research, which remains legal in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the referendum has been closely watched by plant scientists throughout Europe, some of whom made dire predictions about what the result could mean for plant research.

The vote sends an anti-GMO signal that could influence discussion throughout Europe, Mark Stitt, managing director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Golm, Germany, told The Scientist. "Opponents of GMOs will try to use this to strengthen their case," he said. And this will not help the cause of European plant scientists trying to find new methods of increasing global food production to feed a rapidly expanding world population, he said, adding that Europe is falling behind other regions in plant research. "At the moment, Europe is letting the world make the run," Stitt said.

The Swiss ban was approved by 55.6% of voters despite strong objections from the Swiss government, industry, and scientific community. The new law forces the Swiss government to declare a full moratorium on cultivation of GM crops and the import of animals whose genes have been modified in the laboratory. Import of GM food will still be allowed.

Antonia Mochan, spokesperson for the European Commission for science and research, declined to comment directly on the Swiss vote. However, she told The Scientist an EU ban on GMOs could trigger the loss of "considerable chunks of our biotechnology industry, with all the impact that would have, economically, and in other areas of promising biotechnological research."

Guy Wolff, spokesperson for the Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta, admitted that Sunday's vote, which he described as "irrational," was a disappointment. "We see this as a kick in the face for research in Switzerland," he said.

The European Union has left the contentious issue of genetic modification up to member states, who retain national authority to regulate GM crops. Last year, the EU executive body the European Commission lifted a six-year moratorium on the sale of GM foods. Meanwhile, Germany passed stricter GMO laws, even though the country had only a few small GM test fields under cultivation during the past two growing seasons. The only EU nation with sizable GM fields is Spain, although the UK and the Netherlands governments also support GM crops.

Christoph Then, a GMO expert for Greenpeace Germany who monitors GMO issues across Europe, told The Scientist his organization will push for a GMO moratorium in the EU similar to Switzerland's, so that scientists can continue to study the environmental implications of GMO agriculture and its health effects on consumers. "We need to have a full investigation of the risks," he said. Greenpeace would prefer a permanent agricultural GMO ban, Then added, but admitted that winning one from Brussels at the current time would be impossible.

Syngenta's Wolf said he did not expect the Swiss ban to translate into a worsening situation in Europe, given that public sentiment concerning GMOs is already generally negative and global agribusiness firms have, in recent years, moved their GMO laboratory research units outside of the EU, usually to the more GMO-friendly U.S. Last year, Syngenta announced it would shift its GM crop research operation in the UK to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Syngenta was the last company to have a big GMO research presence in the UK, after earlier cuts in GMO operations by Monsanto, DuPont, and Bayer Cropscience.

Wolff said the 5-year GMO ban in Switzerland will have little effect on Syngenta's bottom line, noting that Switzerland accounts for less than 1% of Syngenta's global sales of GM seeds. GM seeds also account for only a fraction of Syngenta's total sales, he said, which in 2004 reached $7.3 billion.

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