Austrians vote massively against biotech

Petition receives nearly one million signatures as week-long "referendum" draws to a close

The Austrian government will have to consider imposing sweeping restrictions on the biotechnology industry, following a massive popular vote for tighter controls. During this week, close to one million Austrian citizens have signed a statement calling on the government to ban the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms, their presence in food, and patenting of living organisms.

The volksbegehren, or "people's demand" was organised by a coalition of environmental groups, which is campaigning for a "gene-technology-free Austria". Its result is not legally binding, but under established rules any proposition that receives more than 100,000 signatures must be debated by the federal parliament (ENDS Daily 2 April).

According to Global 2000, a group that is sponsoring the gene technology volksbegehren, the number of signatures has already reached nearly 1 million, and will climb higher before the process ends on Sunday night. "This will be one of the largest popular votes of any volksbegehren", Thomas Schweiger of Global 2000 told ENDS Daily today.

Signs of the political pressure on the Austrian government have emerged during the week. On Wednesday, Federal Chancellor Victor Klima was reported to have announced that he had an open mind about imposing tighter restrictions on biotechnology, and expressed doubts about the use of biotechnology in agriculture. Global 2000 welcomed the statement as a "180 degree turn by the [governing] Social Democratic Party".

The widespread popular support shown for the volksbegehren could significantly affect not only national but also European Union policies on biotechnology.

For instance, Austria will now be under intense domestic pressure to resist any attempt by the Commission to override its decision to ban a modified maize produced by Ciba/Novartis (ENDS Daily 6 February).

The Commission's ongoing review of the 1990 directive on deliberate release of genetically modified organisms could also be influenced. Industry and other groups have been lobbying for a relaxation of the rules as experience with genetic engineering grows. The volksbegehren will add pressure to do the reverse.

Follow Up:
Gentechnik Volksbegehren , e-mail: . Global 2000 , e-mail: .

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