London (28 November 2005) – By almost the same percentage as their counterparts in Sonoma County rejected a GM-free initiative for their county (1), the electorate in Switzerland yesterday voted in favour of a five-year moratorium banning the use of genetically modified organisms in Swiss agriculture (2).

While GM crops are now making tentative progress across Europe (this year, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Portugal, Romania and Spain are all cultivating them commercially), Central Europe, and particularly the more mountainous regions, feel happier cosseted in the familiar old ways.

During the campaign, there was concern expressed for the sanctity of organic farming, a major consideration in the region. That in itself is an interesting concept. Having abrogated the use of any trace of GM material in their activities, parts of the organic sector now go in fear of the slightest commingling. Whether this is based more on philosophy than concern for brand promotion and market share is a matter for discussion; anti-GM sentiments often do appear to be strongly influenced by commercial considerations.

It has also been commented by observers in Switzerland itself (3) that, compared with the earlier referendum in 1998 (4), the pharmaceutical sector (“red GM”) were less active in promoting the cause of biotechnology before yesterday’s vote. Perhaps they were a touch complacent; the vote was not so directly about them as the previous one had been so perhaps they felt they could afford to keep their distance. But they were misguided to have done so. Support for anti-science movements in the political sphere and more widely is likely to rebound with unfortunate consequences.

Nevertheless, a moratorium is what the Swiss democratically decided they wanted for themselves. So be it. If yesterday’s vote is binding for five years, preventing the issue from being revisited in that period, might Switzerland turn out to be the last country in Europe to recognise that GM agriculture brings benefits, not disasters? In addition, farm subsidies in Switzerland and more widely in the EU will decrease and make product income more important and hence the economics of production more important. Swiss scientists will have to increase their dialogue with the public, and politicians will have to forge more pro biotech alliances. Is it moreover conceivable that one day Swiss proponents of organic agriculture might themselves perceive the benefits, heretical though such a concept may seem today?

Switzerland remains a splendid country if suffering a little at the moment from a measure of alpine sickness. Hopefully the Swiss will in due course recover their equilibrium and reassert their traditional good sense.

Sources:

1. Voters reject Sonoma ban on genetically modified crops. Contra Costa Times (9.11.05) (http://www.contracostatimes.com/mld/cctimes/news/13117309.htm)

2. Swiss back GM moratorium and Sunday shopping. Swiss info (27 November 2005) (http://www.swissinfo.org/sen/swissinfo.html?siteSect=106&sid=6271033&cKey=1133113222000)

3. Klaus Ammann. Die unerträgliche Leichtigkeit des Halbwissens. Neue Zürcher Zeitung (5 November 2005). (English translation ‘Partial knowledge’ available at http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=news&doc_id=11730&start=1&control=199&page_start=1&page_nr=101&pg=1)

4. Swiss reject genetic ban. BBC News (7 June 1998) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/108372.stm)


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