Opinions
Raphael Bühlmann

Reorientation in «genetic engineering»

Since the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the gene scissors, politicians have been looking for a new regulatory framework for the technology. Switzerland is not the only country at a crossroads. The scientific community wants to make its voice heard.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

The modern world is complex. Very. And so have the professions. Whether you're a heating engineer, financial expert or farmer, today every specialism requires specialists. A lot is invested in training accordingly. In return, Switzerland in particular delivers first-class work. On the consumer side and as part of this system, you have to be able to rely on expertise. When you drive your car into the garage, you are also making a claim about the judgement of the vehicle. You trust that the mechanics know what they are doing.

If it is not about a car, but about our livelihoods such as health or food, our demand for information is greater. The right animal welfare or necessary vaccinations are constantly the subject of public debate. We spend large amounts of money on universities, studies and research to deal with such sensitive issues. Switzerland is recognised as one of the leading research locations. And yet, unlike the example of the car, trust in science does not seem to be at its best in this country. Whether it's the coronavirus vaccination or genetic engineering, there is a great deal of scepticism towards research. Scientific findings are being questioned in favour of spreading unqualified opinions on social media. Yet it should be science that provides the best possible facts for the most important questions of our time.

Massive resistance is also already forming in the case of sequenced genome editing. In the summer, the federal government intends to submit a draft law on the regulation of new genetic engineering for consultation. This is likely to be modelled on the EU's approach. The Swiss Alliance Free of Genetic Engineering (SAG) sees itself as a critical forum on this issue and has launched the petition «Extend the moratorium on genetic engineering. For the protection of humans, animals and the environment». SAG is backed by around 25 Swiss associations from the fields of the environment, nature conservation, animal welfare, medicine, development cooperation, organic farming and consumer protection. They argue that the «genetic engineering companies» are putting massive pressure on parliament and the Federal Council and that the majority of the population does not want to eat food produced from genetically modified organisms. Farmers would also want GM-free seeds. «The plans of the genetic engineering lobby would have unforeseeable and irreversible effects on our nature», they argue.

For the proponents, it is regrettable that such premature blanket criticism is depriving the breeding ground for a fundamental discussion. Instead of engaging with the risks and possibilities of modern breeding methods, the supporters believe that tried and tested fears are being fuelled. The moratorium is undisputed; lifting it would make the chemical companies dependent or the effects of a release would not be known. Bio Suisse also announced a popular initiative against new genetic engineering last week.

The refusal to engage with the risks and opportunities is understandable, especially from an economic perspective. Or as Markus Ritter, President of the Swiss Farmers' Association, put it during the debate on the last moratorium extension: «As long as consumers perceive the renunciation of genetic engineering as a quality argument, it is important to focus on this added value.» An added value that can be understood as long as it exists as added value. If the EU extends the authorisation of genome editing, this added value could erode quite quickly due to the immense flow of goods.

Should the reservations about sequenced genome editing in Europe and Switzerland actually turn positive as a result, or if this editing were actually recognised as sustainable and environmentally friendly, some mantras would have to be rewritten. After all, the marketing strategists of various labels have successfully drummed into us over the past decades what sustainable food is supposed to be.

However, we as a society would do very well to ignore the loud market criers and listen to the voices of research. Because one thing is clear: the supply of healthy and safe food will be one of the greatest challenges for future generations. And if we don't want to listen to science in such a complex world, who will we listen to?

Raphael Bühlmann is an agricultural and business economist FH. He has been an editor at «Schweizer Bauer» since 2023. This article was first published in Schweizer Bauer on 27 April.

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