Swiss Biotech Crop Ban Passed by Lower House

BERNE, Switzerland, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - Switzerland's lower parliamentary house, the Nationalrat, has approved a five year moratorium on the farming of genetically modified crops by inserting the ban into an agricultural funding bill voted through this week. Both parliamentary houses rejected the same idea last October.

The rejection result angered green groups, and a coalition of environmental NGOs, small farmers and the Green Party launched a popular initiative to force a referendum on the issue. A recommendation to introduce the moratorium had been made by a special government commission.

Nationalrat

The Swiss lower house of Parliament, the Nationalrat (Photo courtesy Government of Switzerland)
The Nationalrat vote comes just as the European Commission is increasing its efforts to promote "coexistence" between conventional farming and the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops, including a proposal that no European Union country should be allowed to declare itself a "GMO-free zone."

Although Switzerland is located in the center of Europe, it is not a member state in the European Union, so it can make its own laws instead of being required to harmonize its laws with those of the European Union.

The European Commission will produce initial guidelines on how to manage the introduction of commercial genetically modified crops alongside conventional cultivation before the summer, agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler announced on April 24.

The commissioner was addressing a scientific stakeholder conference in Brussels on ways to ensure the "coexistence" of GM agriculture and both non-GM and organic farming without cross-contamination between them.

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An American farmer displays genetically modified corn. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
The Swiss Nationalrat vote underlines the extent of European popular hostility towards GM farming and foods, as political tension grows over the EU's moratorium on GM product approvals, which also impacts on foods.

U.S. agricultural biotechnology companies have developed genetically modified crops such as soya and corn that have been engineered to resist certain insects, tolerate herbicides, and grow in dryland conditions, among other traits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says these crops have tested safe for human consumption. Critics fear allergic reactions to GM foods, and worry that GM crops will cross-breed with traditional crops in nearby fields.

In support of its agricultural industry, now heavily reliant on genetically modified crops, the United States has now decided to launch a dispute procedure in the World Trade Organization in protest of the six year EU moratorium, which it says has cut export opportunities for its farmers, a spokesperson for the U.S. Trade Representative told ABC news today.

Senior EU decision makers insist that the moratorium is on its way out and warn that American legal action would be a disaster for both sides.

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European Union Ambassador to the United States Gunter Burghardt (Photo courtesy European Union)
In a letter to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert dated April 11, EU Ambassador to the U.S. Gunter Burghardt claims that European GMO approvals could restart as early as mid-2003. He insists that any move by the United States to trigger a World Trade Organization dispute procedure would be counter-productive.

The effects of a legal challenge would further damage European consumer confidence, according to Burghardt, and might prompt European consumers to reject U.S. food products. It would deliver "a further - possibly fatal - setback" to Europe's biotechnology industry.

Burghardt goes on to deny that the EU moratorium had protectionist motives. He also rejects suggestions that the EU fueled southern African hostility to American GM food aid.

Politicians in several European countries have tabled "GM-free agriculture" resolutions. The Swiss proposal's sponsoring MP argued that the country could win big commercial advantages by stamping all its farm products as guaranteed to be GM-free.

The moratorium could still be rejected by Switzerland's upper parliamentary house, which is expected to debate the issue in June. But if it falls, the issue will remain on the political agenda because anti-GM groups are planning to force a referendum, probably to be held within three years. They have already collected 90,000 signatures, close to the 100,000 threshold required to spark a national vote.

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{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email: envdaily@ends.co.uk}