GM wheat case goes back to square one

A decision is yet to be made whether GM wheat can be planted outdoors in Switzerland Keystone

The Swiss environment minister, Moritz Leuenberger, has said that a decision by his office rejecting scientists' requests to plant genetically-modified wheat must be reconsidered.

This content was published on September 13, 2002 - 14:34

The announcement comes just weeks before the debate on GM crops is due to resume in parliament.

Swiss fields have remained GM free since the early 1990s when modified potatoes were planted. Two other requests to grow GM crops outdoors were thrown out in 1999.

A similar line was taken last November, when the Federal Office for the Environment - part of Leuenberger's ministry - rejected a request by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to plant eight square metres of GM wheat.

Field trials

The Zurich scientists had hoped to conduct outdoor field trials of 1,600 plants that had been genetically modified to produce a protein making them resistant to a fungal disease.

The Environment Office said at the time that it was impossible to assess the risks of such an experiment.

The Office listed several concerns about the wheat crop, saying the DNA of the protein has not been fully described, and it was unclear how the "new" genes might affect the plants' other genes.

But on Friday, Leuenberger's office disagreed.

"The Federal Office of the Environment said they did not have the information to make risk assessments. And we are saying, yes you can," Philipp Do Canto, a member of the judicial branch of the Swiss Environment Ministry told swissinfo.

After their application was rejected, the researchers fought back appealing the Environment Office's decision.

Leuenberger has now judged that, under the law, such outdoor tests can be permitted under strict conditions.

"It's a good sign because there is a law and we now know it will be applied, which is good for future research," said Christof Sautter, a researcher at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

The Environment Office has been given 90 days to review the decision.

Recommendations ignored

Leuenberger also said that the Office had ignored recommendations by the Bio-Safety Commission and the Ethics Commission, along with other federal offices, favouring the research.

"The ministry found in the end that the Federal Office for the Environment went away from those opinions that were all in favour of the research for experimental purposes," said Do Canto.

How the case will proceed remains to be seen. Leuenberger's ministry shares concerns about the outdoor testing of GM crops.

However, Leuenberger on Friday warned that the GM trial was likely to be given the go-ahead.

"We believe that the request for outdoor tests will have to be approved," he said.

The Swiss parliament will discuss a general moratorium on antibiotic resistant genes next month as a new round of legislation on gene technology comes up for debate.

WWF Switzerland

For its part, the Swiss branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said it will not contest Friday's decision. "We only expect Parliament to take their responsibility," said Bernadette Oehen of the WWF, Switzerland.

"The attempt to produce genetically modified wheat has obvious shortcomings," Oehen said.

The WWF is demanding that the new genetic engineering law has clear procedures to guarantee the protection of the environment, consumers and producers.

Greenpeace Switzerland expressed outrage at the decision, accusing Leuenberger of giving in to the GM lobby.

swissinfo

Key facts

Proponents of GM crops fear that banning genetic research could lead to a scientific brain drain.
In 1998, Swiss voters rejected a proposal to introduce a ban on GM organisms.
The head of the Bio-Safety Commission resigned after the Environment Office rejected Zurich's request in November.

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