Swiss vote against gene technology ban

Proposal to alter national constitution soundly rejected; UK debate on GM foods heats up

A proposal to ban the use of genetically modified crops and animals in Switzerland was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in a national referendum held yesterday. On a turnout of around 40%, about 67% voted against tougher restrictions on genetic engineering and genetics research, in the first national vote on the issue in the world.

The referendum on the "Gene Protection Initiative" was engineered by SAG, an alliance of more than 70 environmental, animal rights, conservation and social groups (ENDS Daily 5 June). Under Swiss law, the proposition required a majority of both voters and Swiss districts to be passed, in which case it would have sparked an amendment to the national constitution.

Swiss scientists and biotechnology firms have welcomed the referendum's outcome. If passed, the proposal would have had serious repercussions for researchers and industry, they say. Switzerland is home to a number of large genetics multinationals, and opponents to the proposal claimed it would result in the loss of up to 4,000 jobs.

However, the referendum is a serious setback for Switzerland's strong anti-genetics movement. One campaigner told ENDS Daily that, although a further referendum is technically possible under Swiss law, this was "unlikely" to happen.

Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales has injected new heat into debate over genetically modified foods in the UK by publicly speaking out against genetic engineering in agriculture. In an interview in today's Daily Telegraph newspaper, the prince stressed the uncertainties surrounding the long-term consequences of creating modified foods and supported a call by an official conservation advisory body, English Nature, for a moratorium on the introduction of crops modified to tolerate herbicides.

The prince's intervention was immediately welcomed by environmental groups today, as well as the opposition, centrist Liberal Democrats party. Liberal Democrats environment spokesman Norman Baker called for a five-year moratorium on all genetically modified crops. There was a "revolution taking place in the food and farming industries which nobody has voted for," Mr Baker said.

Whether by accident or intent, the prince's article has overshadowed the launch by biotechnology firm Monsanto of a UKĀ£1m (Ecu1.4m) advertising campaign in the UK promoting genetically modified crops. "We believe in the benefits of plant biotechnology," reads one of Monsanto's newspaper advertisements, which encourages consumers to request more information not only from itself but also, for an "alternative opinion," from groups, such as Greenpeace, that are campaigning against modified foods.

Follow Up:
SAG, tel: +41 1 262 2568. Daily Telegraph, tel: +44 171 538 5000 (The site includes the full text of the Prince of Wales' article). Liberal Democrats, tel: +44 171 222 7999; The web site of Friends of the Earth includes a response to Monsanto's advertising campaign.

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