International Herald Tribune, 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 food."

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 2004.

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 vote.

"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