International Herald Tribune  [Printer-friendly version]
November 27, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Swiss voters recently approved a 5-year ban
on genetically-modified crops (GMOs). The Swiss want to know more
before they make a final decision on the wisdom of releasing GMOs
into the environment because once GMOs get loose, there's no way to
retrieve them. Genetic pollution is permanent.]

By Tom Wright

GENEVA -- In a further sign of widespread distrust in Europe of
scientifically enhanced foods, Swiss voters on Sunday supported a
five-year ban on the farming of genetically modified crops, a vote
that underscores the problems facing the European Commission and
biotech companies like Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto as they try to
overcome consumer doubts about safety.

"The vote reflects the view across the EU, not just Switzerland," said
Adrian Bebb, an expert on the issue at Friends of the Earth, an
advocacy group. "The public doesn't want to eat genetically modified

While the United States has led the production and consumption of
genetically modified crops, Europeans consumers have been largely
hostile. The European Commission banned the import of genetically
modified organisms, or GMOs, from the United States between 1998 and

But under pressure from the United States and other nations, the
commission ended the ban in May last year. In 2003, the United States
took Europe to the World Trade Organization, claiming that its ban
amounted to unfair protection, and was not based on scientific
evidence that genetically modified organisms affected human health or
the environment.

Many European governments and consumers have fought the commission's
attempts to open the market. In June, European environment ministers
upheld a decision by some governments, including France, Austria and
Greece, to ban the use of eight genetically modified products
previously authorized by Brussels.

While some governments, including Spain, Britain and the Netherlands,
believe Europe has sufficient safeguards in place, many nations say
further tests are needed before allowing widespread farming of
genetically modified crops. Currently, only Spain has sizable areas
given over to farming of such crops. Farmers in Germany and France are
among those to have recently started small-scale operations.

In Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, farmers
are not involved in growing genetically modified crops, so the vote on
Sunday, in which 55.7 percent of voters approved the ban, will not
have much practical effect.

"This decision shows the majority of Swiss do not want genetically
modified food on their plates," Marlyse Dormond, a Socialist member of
Parliament who backed the ban, told Radio Suisse Romande.

The commission -- faced with a possible WTO ruling early next year on
the U.S. complaint, which is also supported by Canada and Argentina -
has pushed ahead with approving new GMOs despite safety doubts from
some European governments.

On Aug. 31, for instance, the commission approved the use of a
rapeseed produced by the American company Monsanto in animal feed
after member states were split over whether the product was a risk to
the environment.

Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU agriculture commissioner, Mariann
Fischer Boel, said the Union rigorously tested GMOs before approving
them. The commission, he said, would not be making a statement on the
Swiss vote.

Testing, however, has not been enough to persuade many national and
local governments. A Web site run by Friends of the Earth lists 164
local governments in the European Union that have taken action to ban
the crops or have come out publicly against them.

Action against the use of GMOs has caused clashes between local
authorities and the commission. In October, the European Court of
Justice ruled in favor of the commission in a dispute with an Austrian
province that had tried to ban GMOs.

Many European regions, such as Tuscany, in Italy, fear that
introducing genetically modified crops will damage their image as
producers of high-quality foods, Bebb said.

Genetically modified crops are mainly produced by large-scale farmers
in nations like the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and
China. Proponents say the technology, which involves using genetic
alterations to help plants combat insects and herbicides, could help
boost yields and reduce prices over the long term.

"The ban would deprive our farmers, companies and researchers of
finding out what these genetically modified foods can do," a Swiss
business group, economiesuisse, said during campaigning before the

"Because it is a very dynamic sector, five years is equivalent to an
eternity, and we won't be able to regain that lost time."

Although Switzerland's move does not ban research on genetically
modified organisms, the group said it feared it would deter companies
from making further investment.

Syngenta, one of the largest producers of GMOs, which is based in
Basel, Switzerland, and has large operations in the United States,
criticized the decision.

"We regret the negative impact for research," Alwin Kopse, a spokesman
for Syngenta, told Bloomberg News. "We regret that farmers don't have
the whole range of choice."

Copyright 2005 the International Herald Tribune