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Swiss soil to remain GM free

Opponents of GM crops say plants grown outdoors, as in this field in Germany, might contaminate other plants through pollination Keystone Archive

The government has rejected an attempt by leading Swiss scientists to conduct outdoor field trials of genetically modified crops.

This content was published on November 20, 2001 - 12:19

The Federal Office for the Environment on Tuesday rejected a request from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to plant genetically modified wheat, saying it was impossible to assess the risks of such an experiment.

Philippe Roch, director of the environment office, said he had no choice but to reject the institute's request.

"Man and the environment must not be exposed to an unknown product which on the basis of all the evidence we have is not necessary," Roch said.

It is the third time an application to grow GM crops outdoors has been rejected in Switzerland - two other requests were thrown out in 1999.

Announcing its decision, the Environment Office said indoor trials would be acceptable in theory. Opponents of GM crops say such plants grown outdoors could potentially contaminate other plants through pollination.

The Zurich scientists were hoping to conduct field trials of wheat which had been genetically modified to produce a protein that makes it resistant to a fungal disease.

Criticism of decision

Klaus Amman, a member of Switzerland's Bio-Safety Commission, rejected the government's decision not to allow the field trials.

"If it's done in the right way, it's not risky at all," Amman told swissinfo. "With their argument, you can kill all research projects in Switzerland, and that is really outrageous," Amman said.

Amman said the head of the Bio-Safety Commission resigned on Tuesday to protest the government's decision. The resignation could not be independently confirmed late on Tuesday.

Rejecting the genetic research could prompt a number of Swiss scientists to head overseas to conduct research in countries that permit it, Amman said.

"We will have a brain drain. It's already starting. Young students think it's hopeless here...and that's a catastrophe for Switzerland," Amman said.

"Killer protein"

The Environment Office listed several concerns about the wheat crop, saying the DNA of the so-called "killer-protein" had not been fully described, and it was unclear what effect the "new" genes might have on the plants' other genes.

But Roch made it clear the decision to reject the latest request did not mean the Swiss government was "closing its doors" to scientists and researchers.

Parliament earlier this year rejected calls to impose a moratorium on the growing of GM crops in Switzerland, Parliamentarians said the technique could help to increase the productivity of crops and alleviate hunger in the world. But they also drew attention to the possible risks of mutating organisms and consequences for the environment and nature.

In 1998, Swiss voters turned down a proposal to introduce a wide-ranging ban on genetically modified organisms, including a ban on the patenting of animals and plants.

However, opinion polls have consistently shown that the public is widely opposed to GM crops. The strength of public feeling has prompted Switzerland's two leading supermarket chains, Migros and Coop, to refuse to stock any GM products.

swissinfo with agencies

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