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GM lobby goes on charm offensive

Geneticists have to persuade a sceptical public about the value of their work

(Keystone)

For the fifth year in a row, Switzerland's genetics researchers are opening their lab doors and letting the public get a glimpse of their work.

Scientists are hoping to use the occasion to ease Swiss fears of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Polls have repeatedly shown that the average Swiss is against GMOs, and politicians have been forced to take notice of public opinion.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted in favour of a five-year moratorium on the use of GMOs in crop production - seven months after rejecting a similar proposal.

In February this year, farmers' and consumer organisations began collecting signatures to force a national vote on the issue.

Around 90,000 people have already signed the proposed people's initiative, close to the 100,000 signatures needed.

Five years ago, Swiss voters rejected an initiative supporting the use of gene technology.

Shortly after the vote, scientists decided to organise a series of information events on genetic research for the general public.

This year open days will be taking place in Basel, Bellinzona, Düdingen, Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich.

Suspicious minds

Sandro Rusconi, president of the Union of Swiss Societies for Experimental Biology (USSEB), says gene research needs as much help as it can get.

"People are still very suspicious of gene technology," he told swissinfo. "They use words like 'manipulation' or 'contamination', and consider GMOs to be synonymous with poison."

The biologist says he understands why consumers harbour such fears, but adds that they shouldn't consider the issue in black-and-white terms only.

Rusconi believes today's agriculture, be it traditional or biological, cannot answer all food requirements, and says varied techniques are required to be successful.

He also considers the legal battle surrounding the proposed field trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat by Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology "pathetic."

"It's a lot of wasted energy for a field trial that will cover just eight square metres," he said. "It seems to have become a question of principle for some people."

"They have considered from the outset that anything that is GM is inherently bad."

Putting genes first

Supporters of GM technology argue that it is not just a question of developing stronger plants or ones with improved yields; gene mapping has, for example, totally changed the outlook for biomedical research, they say.

"We used to look for the gene behind certain body functions," Rusconi told swissinfo. "Today, we find the gene first, then we consider its function."

The biggest challenge for genetics specialists today is convincing the public of the value of their research, since practical applications are usually still a long way off.

The public's major fear appears to be the prospect of cloned humans. Rusconi admits that someone may attempt to clone a human being, but adds that it would be an act of madness.

"It would be an insult to evolution," he said. "Nature is supposed to determine our destiny, and only someone who considers him or herself to be perfect would want to be cloned."

Rusconi says he never believed claims by the Raelian movement that some of its women members had given birth to cloned babies.

"Researchers know exactly what can done and what cannot be done," he told swissinfo.

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez (translation: Scott Capper)

Key facts

Switzerland's genetic research days run until June 13.
Events wîll be held in Basel, Bellinzona, Düdingen, Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich.
People can spend a day in a laboratory alongside researchers.

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In brief

Surveys show that Swiss consumers are against the use of GMOs in food production.

The Swiss parliament recently voted in favour of a five-year moratorium on the planting of GM crops.

Swiss geneticists say the public's perception of gene technology is flawed, and that the science still has much to offer.

Researchers in Switzerland add that the public's worst fear, human cloning, is highly unlikely at this time.

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