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Biotechnology debate rages in Lausanne

What is the future for gene technology and Swiss agriculture? WWF

One of the highlights of Swiss Science Week will be a debate in Lausanne on agriculture and biotechnology.

The controversy generated by this topic is a major reason why Swiss Science Week is taking place at all – to try to promote dialogue between the world of science and the general public.

The battle lines in the debate have been drawn since June 1998 when Swiss voters rejected a people’s initiative to restrict genetic engineering.

“We don’t see any advantages of biotechnology, we see only disadvantages,” says Green politician, Fernand Cuche, general secretary of one of the Swiss farmers’ unions.

“We haven’t resolved the fundamental agricultural problems like crop protection with biotechnology. So for us, it’s a failure. We reject it. We think the best solution is to forego the use of chemical products for crop protection.”

Cuche says farmers are also opposed to paying royalties on the patents for genetically modified crops.

On the other side of the platform in the Lausanne debate will be Roland Bilang, director of Internutrition, which represents the food and seed industry in Switzerland.

“We are convinced that this is a key technology for the agriculture and food industry and we would like to make use of it,” he says.

“The advantages of the current products which are available on the market are clearly on the side of the producer. He is able to use less pesticide for his production and he has a better yield, so this promotes a more sustainable agriculture. Future generations of the product will probably have more consumer benefits and it will be much easier to explain the benefits to the consumer then.”

Opponents of gene technology like Cuche warn of the possible health risks posed by food with genetically engineered ingredients, and the ecological possibilities of transgenic plants turning into nasty weeds.

Bilang rejects this argument: “The genetically engineered products have been tested worldwide. You cannot have any other foodstuff which has such an enormous testing-phase behind it and what we can certainly say is that there will be no negative effects to human health coming from those products which are on the market at the moment and which are related to the genetic engineering process.”

As for genes escaping or mutating in other crops, he says these are issues which are not specific to genetic engineering. “Genes are present in our diet every day, genes are present in the environment and I don’t think that genetically engineered genes behave differently from conventionally engineered genes.”

Olivier Cadot, professor of economics at the university of Lausanne Business School will be a voice of moderation in next week’s debate.

“GMOs have the potential to offer wonderful technical progress for agriculture. They may allow us to rely less on the massive use of chemicals in agriculture. But there is a definite risk that the consumer and public opinion backlash against GMOs might stifle the development of technology which doesn’t seem to be useful right now for the consumer.”

by Vincent Landon

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR