Farmers say Switzerland isn't ready for GM plants

The economic benefit of the technology remains modest Keystone

The farming community in Switzerland is not opposed in principle to genetically modified (GM) plants. But growing GM plants is unthinkable in the present situation and the national moratorium should be extended till 2017, says the Swiss Farmers’ Association.

This content was published on September 28, 2012 minutes

GM plants are not harmful – neither for human health nor for the environment: that is the basic finding reached by the Swiss National Science Foundation’s national research programme (NRP) on the risks and benefits of GM plants in agriculture.

In the present circumstances, however, the economic benefit of this biotechnology for farmers remains “modest”, says the final report of NRP 59 (see sidebar).

But apart from the economic evaluation of the researchers, what do farmers think of GM plants? And how do they evaluate the potential benefits and risks of growing them? spoke to Bernard Nicod, a member of the executive committee of the Swiss Farmers’ Association who describes himself as a “typical lowland farmer” from canton Vaud. You grow potatoes, cereals, forage and tobacco in the conventional manner. Would you be prepared to introduce GM plants on your farm?

Bernard Nicod: I am not opposed in principle to genetic engineering. Most of the farmers, at least those who belong to our Association, share this view. We just think that Swiss agriculture is not ready for it yet. For what reasons?

B.N.: Production of genetically modified plants needs to meet three conditions: it has to make sense from an ecological, an agricultural and an economic point of view. Currently, none of these criteria hold. Can you explain?

B.N.: Swiss agriculture needs among other things to supply food products to consumers. Currently, the majority of our consumers do not want foods produced from transgenic crops. No business person would want to get into producing goods that the consumer doesn’t want.

Switzerland is a small country, with farms and fields close together. So it would be hard to separate the cycle of production and distribution of conventional agriculture from that of transgenic agriculture. We are not sure we can cope with the extra costs of that kind of separation.

These costs, as well as the issue of legal liability in case of contamination, were not considered in the studies of NRP 59. This is another reason why research on GM plants should be continued so as to better define the problems from different points of view. We believe therefore that the moratorium on growing GM plants should be extended to 2017. Just theoretically, what could be the advantages of growing GM plants in Switzerland?

B.N.: Increase in productivity – in quantitative and even qualitative terms. I am thinking for example of the amount of protein or increased nutritional value of some transgenic plants. GM plants can resist diseases and parasites and thus reduce the need for pesticides and fungicides.

Climate change means that some crops may have to adapt to a new context. GM plants could contribute positively to adaptation to the climate – for example by better resisting water stress. What do you fear as potential risks?

B.N.: Most of all the lack of in-depth knowledge about the impact of GM plants on the environment. From the NRP 59 report it would appear that there are no problems, but I do not think the range of things considered was sufficient to reach that conclusion. It will be important to carry on the research to get more convincing answers.

The tools and materials of biotechnology are concentrated in the hands of one or two big multinationals whose ethical values may be different from those of our society. With GM plants, there is the risk of being beholden to whoever supplies seeds and products. The farmer would lose his independence.

We are seeing that in the US, where there are traditional farmers surrounded by transgenic operations. They have no choice but to join the trend.

In the particular case of Switzerland, it needs to be said that our farm products are exposed to strong competition from neighbouring countries. Today our products are still strong because we adhere to particular principles of cultivation, close to the land. The day we start growing GM plants, we are likely to disappear into the crowd and we will suffer economic losses.

Finally, it should be borne in mind that one of the tasks of farmers is to maintain biodiversity. But we know that using GM plants has the tendency to reduce the number of species. I can’t help wondering if this is not a contradiction. Organic farming in Switzerland is well developed: on average it involves one farm in ten. Can this coexist with GM crops?

B.N.: With considerable difficulty. The rules for organic agriculture in Switzerland are very strict, especially when you compare them to those of neighbouring countries. If GM plants were introduced, it would become even more difficult to meet the organic criteria and the whole sector would be doomed to disappear.

Given how close fields are together, the risk of spreading and contamination is great. For example, we have farm machinery being used on different farms. To avoid any contamination, farmers would have to buy new machinery, or it would have to be thoroughly cleaned before every new job. But that is not economically feasible. Again, how could you be sure that the “GM” farmer who goes over to talk to his “organic” neighbour won’t bring traces of pollen or seed on his boots? So GM plants have no future in Switzerland?

B.N.: It depends. Today our priority is to feed the world’s population. If in future other interests or issues emerge, to do with water supply for example, and if biotechnology provides a valid solution, I believe that Swiss farmers will be able to keep an open mind.

No risk

The national research programme on “Benefits and risks of the deliberate release of genetically modified plants” in Switzerland (NRP 59), launched in 2005, published its final report on August 28, 2012. Here are the main findings.

Health and environment: based on present knowledge, GM plants are not harmful for human health or for the environment. They might in fact help to counteract health risks. For example, using transgenic Bt maize reduces the concentration of neurotoxic or carcinogenic mycotoxins in food products and animal feed.

Consumer attitudes: only a quarter of consumers would be prepared to buy foodstuffs produced by means of genetic engineering. However, 80% of people interviewed favoured freedom of choice between conventional and GM food products.

Farmers: the economic profitability of GM varieties is at present fairly limited. This situation could change if there was increased pressure from parasites or if it became possible to cultivate varieties presenting several new characteristics (for example combined resistance to a herbicide and a disease).

Coexistence and costs: farms with and without GM plants can coexist even in a small country like Switzerland. The costs generated by measures to ensure coexistence (isolation distance, separation of flows of goods) are low compared with the total costs of production. These costs could be reduced by grouping farm operations in transgenic production zones, as is being done in some parts of Portugal.

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GM plants around the world

In 2011, the surface under transgenic cultivation in the entire world (160 million hectares - about 40 times the size of Switzerland) grew by 8% over the previous year.

GM plants are cultivated in 29 countries, 19 of which are emerging or developing countries. The bulk of the operations is concentrated in the US, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada.

According to the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), ten new countries will start using GM plants in agriculture by 2015.

Farmers cultivating transgenic plants (such as soy, maize, canola and cotton) now number 16.7 million.

(source: NRP 59)

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