The Federal Council’s obstructionist policy is harming Switzerland
At the end of June, the Federal Council published a message about the Gene Technology Act. In principle, the existing moratorium is to be extended until the year 2025. New technologies, such as gene editing, are to be included under the existing law. If Parliament concurs with the Federal Council, the commercial use of gene-editing applications will continue to be prohibited in Switzerland for the next four years.
Thursday, July 8, 2021
- The Federal Council wants to extend the existing GMO moratorium by another four years.
- New breeding methods such as genome editing are also affected by the moratorium.
- The decision harms both science and the environment.
However, the arguments put forth by the Federal Council are hard to comprehend. The Council argues that new methods of genetic engineering would interfere with a plant’s genome in a manner that would not occur under natural conditions, through crossbreeding or natural recombination. It fails to recognize that most of these new applications create products that could just as easily result from a spontaneous mutation or natural recombination. Furthermore, Switzerland has already approved certain breeding methods that interfere greatly with a plant’s genome. Classical mutagenesis techniques do so much less precisely than modern technologies. This unequal treatment is unacceptable.
No negative experiences so far
Moreover, it is wrong to ban an entire type of technology simply because it opens up “extensive possibilities.” It’s time that Switzerland, too, moved to a risk-based approach. Interestingly, this would be possible under the existing Gene Technology Act. In its message, however, the Federal Council argues that there is still “a lack of sufficient data and experience” regarding the products of gene editing, and no “history of safe use.” This is an astounding conclusion, given that this technology is already being used in a variety of agricultural crops, and that gene-edited foods are being grown and consumed today in a number of countries with no negative effects, but instead with enormous health benefits for consumers.
Gene editing is safe
How long does the Federal Council want to wait? Another four years, and then maybe another eight? Long enough for research in this field to move abroad, and for small, local breeding companies to fall hopelessly behind their foreign competitors? The evidence is already clear: The well-known gene editing applications are safe – for humans as well as the environment. It would therefore be a good thing if Parliament, which is considering this bill during the fall session, were to recognize that fact and call for a risk- and product-based approach to regulation. Few deny that gene editing could be especially beneficial in a small country like Switzerland, which has a high level of technological expertise and well educated farmers, or that gene editing would make it easier to translate into practice such often called-for agroecological approaches as mixtures of different varieties and species. It is time for our country to embrace an evidence-based, future-oriented policy regarding genetic engineering, one that allows for innovation in the field, too, and provides opportunities for talented young people to conduct research. Gene editing is happening, with positive effects – if not here, then elsewhere.
Good to know
Modern breeding methods are crucial to ensure that all aspects of agriculture are resource-efficient. The methodology is explained here. To cite just one example: Gene editing can help prevent feed waste and promote the use of domestic feed.
On 7 February, the EU Parliament voted in favour of approving the new genomic breeding methods in the EU. MEPs voted in favour of a corresponding proposal by 307 votes to 263 with 41 abstentions. Further deliberations will now follow.
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It is disappointing what the Federal Council announced in a media release on 25 October 2023 on the subject of new genetic methods. Both in terms of content and timing, the government is putting on the brakes. The dithering is incomprehensible.