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Farmers divided over GM technology

Elvira Bader fears that GMO substances would destroy years of work on her farm

(swissinfo.ch)

Swiss farmers, at the heart of this month's nationwide vote on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, are divided on the issue.

While some are enthusiastic about GMOs, others say more research has to be done into their effects on farming and produce.

The government has recommended rejecting the moratorium, saying that it is not necessary given the country's already strict legislation on gene technology.

This position has been backed up by a slim majority in parliament, the business world and an impressive group of Swiss world-class researchers.

Those in favour of a moratorium include green groups, consumers associations, and perhaps more importantly, farmers themselves. All the national farming associations have pronounced themselves in favour of the moratorium, although some cantonal federations have taken the opposite view.

Elvira Bader, a centre-right Christian Democrat parliamentarian and farmer's wife from canton Solothurn, says she doesn't fear GM technology as such. But she believes the lack of research about its impact is reason enough to introduce a moratorium.

"Introducing GMOs in agriculture presents no difficulties nowadays," she told swissinfo. "But we don't know how to get rid of them if their effects turn out to be bad."

Bader's 40-hectare property – a large farm by Swiss standards – has been turned over to organic farming. One of her concerns is that if GM technology is introduced she won't be able to avoid contamination of her produce.

"Our products must not contain more than 0.5 per cent of GM substances," she said. "If genetically modified organisms reached our farm, we wouldn't be able to sell our milk under a special quality label and it would destroy years of work."

Enthusiastic

Her party colleague, Josef Leu, is far more enthusiastic about the potential of GMOs in agriculture. He says he would straightaway introduce the technology onto his farm in canton Lucerne if he could.

"GM farming opens up new perspectives and would benefit the environment," he told swissinfo. "We would be able to develop better plants using more efficient and faster methods."

For Leu, who is also an agricultural engineer, one of the main benefits would be decreased usage of pesticides and fertiliser. "For a farmer who wants to adopt organic work methods, what could be better than doing away with chemicals," he said.

But such statements leave many observers cold. Gérard Vuffray, who works for one of the more militant farmers' associations, Uniterre, says that at present there are no GM products on the market that are worthwhile introducing in Switzerland.

"Besides the possible, if still unknown risks, it makes no sense from an agronomical or economic point of view to introduce GMOs at this time," he said. "Current GM products are designed for large crop surfaces, which is not common in Switzerland."

"We also can also expect these organisms to spread if they are introduced. Maybe in ten years time, there might be such a product that is acceptable, but for the time being it's perfectly reasonable to consider a five-year moratorium."

According to Vuffray, what is needed now is more research into GMOs and their effects.

"Contrary to what is being said by many people, we think more testing and research should be carried out so we know more about these products," he told swissinfo. "Besides, the moratorium does not restrict research, only the use of GMOs in agriculture."

Not interested

Vuffray believes that adopting GM technology would also be a step backwards for Swiss agriculture.

"We would be forgetting all the improvements introduced in the past 25 years that have allowed us to work in a more environmentally friendly way," he said. "We would end up pouring more chemicals into the ground than we are now, since there is a strong chance more resistant pests and weeds will appear."

Most farmers in Switzerland say they are not interested in GM technology. Serge Beck, a Liberal Party parliamentarian and farmer from the Jura foothills, is among them.

Yet he has publicly voiced his opposition to the moratorium because he believes Switzerland's law on gene technology is sufficient. But he is also against it because of what he calls its incoherence – as GMOs will still find their way into the country.

"There are no restrictions on importing GM animal fodder and we cannot turn back foodstuffs from the European Union containing GM substances," he told swissinfo.

Missed point

Vuffray says that such affirmations miss the point.

"We can only vote on what happens inside Switzerland," he added. "If we attempted to restrict imports, we would be breaking our international agreements."

For Beck, the alternative to a moratorium is educating farmers about the bigger benefits of GM-free agriculture, such as niche markets with higher revenue.

"Personally, I don't want to be indebted to the agrochemical sector either," he added.

All farmers say they have strong ties to their land. In the end, they want to hand on their properties in good shape to their children.

"I want to leave my sons something intact, in the same condition I found it when I first arrived," said Bader.

For Leu, whose family has owned the farm for five generations, the aim is the same, although the method is different.

"I want to hand my land on in the best possible shape, and that's why I want to stop using chemicals," he added. "But to do that, I have to call on scientific developments, including gene technology."

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

At the end of 2003, there were 65,866 farms in Switzerland.
Only 6,124 are officially considered to carry out organic farming.
More than 193,000 people work on Swiss farms.
More than 1 billion hectares of land in Switzerland are used for agricultural purposes.
The average farm has a surface of 16.2 hectares.

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