A vote for alien seeds

The Swiss vote overwhelmingly against a ban on the genetic modification of plants and animals

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1998

-- a two-year campaign against genetic engineering by environmentalists, animal rights and consumer groups in Switzerland received a severe jolt on June 7, when Swiss voters, in a referendum, decisively rejected a proposal to ban the production and patenting of genetically modified organisms ( gmo s). The people rejected the ban by a two-to-one margin. None of the country's 26 cantons or political areas voted in favour of the restrictions. The referendum has wide-ranging ramifications for the European countries which have been closely watching the situation.

Switzerland is the only country in the world to have voted on one of the most contentious of modern scientific issues. The proposal -- to "protect life and the environment against genetic manipulation" -- received the strongest support in the German-speaking cantons. It was weakest in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland. This reflects divisions in other German and French-speaking areas of Europe on such issues. In the French-speaking canton of Vaud, the voting was five to one against the ban. In the Protestant, German-speaking canton of Appenzell, a ban was favoured by 44 per cent.

The pharmaceutical industry has spent about us $35 million to persuade voters to reject the measure. Animal rights activists, environmentalists and consumer groups, who raised us $1.3 million, forced the referendum after collecting over 100,000 signatures opposing the methods of genetic engineering. Their campaigns evoked images of human-made catastrophes. They raised questions about what might occur if genetically manipulated animals and plants entered the food chain.

The pharmaceutical industry, on the other hand, has warned of paralysing biomedical research by advertisements depicting mothers continuously searching for cures for cancer and other diseases. The industry also warned that the proposed regulations could prompt the scientists to move out of the country and could cost up to 42,000 jobs.

Paul Herrling, director for global research for the Switzerland-based drug giant, Novartis Pharma says: "The vote is a support for the strong position of our university research". The government subsidises university biomedical research centres which also have project with major drug companies. He said that Novartis would continue with the research using genetically modified animals to find cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases. Aghast by the results Florianne Koechlin, a leading campaigner for the ban, said: "They really succeeded in making it a medical issue and created all these hopes for cures."

Bernadate Oehen, head of genetic technology for the Swiss branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, said: "The referendum on the genetic protection initiative was undecided for a long time. I am convinced that many people voted 'no' to support medicine but still share our concern about the environment." The Swiss pharmaceutical industry has argued that a ban would have forced it to move most of its research projects out of the country. There is a risk that widespread use of genetically engineered crops could have a disastrous effect on wild plants and animals, seriously upsetting the balance between species.

To make it an act and a part of the Swiss constitution, the coalition was required to win the majority of popular vote as well as winning a majority in the 26 cantons. But, unfortunately, the coalition won one-third of the popular vote and nothing in the cantons.

At present the us has established a lead in the bioengineering of foods. Out of 20 biofoods which have got a green signal from the ministry of health and welfare in Japan, half the number belong to the us companies and their local subsidiaries. In Europe there is still a strong concern about the safety of genetically engineered foods. But in 1997, France opened the gates to biofoods when they lifted the ban on domestic cultivation of genetically engineered corn.

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