Prague, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Swiss citizens will vote Sunday in a referendum on the controversial scientific issue of genetic engineering. It will be the first time any country has polled its voters on this issue.
There are three controversial questions: Should research projects using genetically manipulated animals be legal? Should genetically alterated animals and plants be patented? And should genetically modified organisms be deliberately released into the environment?
The referendum's results will not only have an impact on major Swiss pharmaceutical companies like Novartis and Roche which depend on genetic research into plants and animals, it will also send a message to European Union countries that are dealing with similar issues on a slightly different scale.
Genetically altered food - corn, soybeans, grain and meat - is the hot topic in the EU. The controversy itself is nothing new. For years American farmers have been protesting Europe's strict barriers to farm trade. The EU claims U.S. genetically treated soybean, maize and grain exports, among others, are a health threat to consumers. The crops are usually endowed with extra genes that protect the crop against insects and weed-killing sprays. American farmers and agricultural organizations say the gene treatment cuts down on damaged crops, boosts productivity and does less damage to the environment.
But EU agriculture officials in Brussels are skeptical. And environmental groups like Greenpeace have staged "Genetic Hazard Patrols" to disrupt imports of genetically altered crops.
Allan Mustard, the chief agricultural counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, told RFE/RL that agricultural experts both in the EU and United States are watching the Swiss carefully, but not necessarily using the results as bellwether of where the issue is headed in Europe.
"I think it is part and parcel of the same examination of biotechnology that we see throughout several countries in Europe. And actually what I see in Europe is more examination of the benefits of biotechnology now. I think there was a consumer scare about a year ago in part because of a reaction to the mad cow disease crisis. People saw biotechnology as a threat. I think people have begun to come to the realization that biotechnology offers very real benefits."
Mustard says U.S. crop regulation standards are rigid enough to loosen European export bans. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Food And Drug Administration monitor all new strains of crops entering foreign countries. Mustard says sound science and years of biotechnology experience back all crops entering the EU.
But the EU isn't loosening its standards yet. Last week EU farm ministers approved plans obliging manufacturers to label all foods containing genetically modified maize and soybeans. The EU has also discussed using a "may contain" label if a food product may have come from genetically manipulated crop imports.
The labeling issue is still controversial, however. The U.S, Canada and many Latin American countries say labeling requirements are not clear enough for food manufacturers and processors. While the EU, supported by India and some Asian countries favor labeling all genetically engineered food.
Greenpeace International's coordinator for its genetic engineering campaign, Benedikt Haerlin, told RFE/RL that the EU's labeling plans for GMO's, or genetically modified organisms, are not strict enough.
"The labeling rules in the EU now for soybeans and maize only so far demand that you have to be able to trace down the GMO in the individual product. So for instance all oil products or hydrolyzed starch products from maize or similar products where the DNA has been destroyed will not have to be labeled. This is not good enough from our point of view and also it opens a loophole for additives such as lecithin, which is derived from soybeans that are used in very small quantities and don't need to be labeled."
Experts at the World Farmers Congress (WFC) said last week that farmers will rely increasingly on genetic engineering as the world population expands into the next century. Mustard and the WFC say genetic engineering will increase the supply of food for a hungry world..
"Those people have to be fed and they have to be fed in a way that does not destroy the environment, that does not result in a 30-40 percent expansion in farmland because we simply don't have that much farmland that we can put into production. There are no farm reserves anymore. We have to farm with the land that we have."
Leaders at the nine-day conference ending today said that once the initial fear of using genetically modified crops subsides, farmers around the world will be willing to share what they've learned about biotechnology. And Mustard says despite the EU's ban on some strains of crops and what he calls "scare tactics" by groups like Greenpeace, the EU has shown notable interest in developing the same kind of biotechnology for its exports.