Swiss Opt for Lighter GMO Regulation

BERN--Biotech researchers breathed a sigh of relief today after Switzerland's cabinet, the Federal Council, rejected a hotly debated proposal for a moratorium on releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment. Instead, the Council adopted a less burdensome legislative package that calls for a case-by-case evaluation of GMO research proposals.

The new legislation, called "Gen-Lex," has its roots in a June 1998 public referendum that would have banned Swiss research involving transgenic animals (ScienceNOW, 8 June 1998). In persuading the public to reject the referendum by a 2-to-1 margin, the Swiss government and industry officials had promised to tighten laws governing transgenic research.

Toward that end, Switzerland's federal environment office--and, recently, Environment Minister Moritz Leunberger--pushed for a moratorium of at least 10 years on genetically modified crops as well as on some research that would involve release of GMOs, such as experiments involving transgenic plants with close relatives nearby. The environment office also wanted to require companies or scientists to prove that their GMO products or research would benefit the public.

But Switzerland's pharmaceutical and seed industries, joined by some research organizations, helped convince the Council to adopt a less restrictive version of the Gen-Lex package. This version shifts the burden of proof by stating only that GMO projects could be rejected if they are not deemed to be in the public interest. Gen-Lex, in addition to its GMO research provisions, would require companies to carry liability insurance on GMO products for 30 years (a decade longer than in many European countries), and it stipulates that Swiss consumers must be informed of products containing GMOs.

Industry is relieved that the Council rejected more stringent measures. "The decision is in line with Swiss policy to allow significant biotechnology research," says Thomas Cueni, who heads Interpharma, a group that represents the Swiss pharmaceutical industry. The legislation--which observers expect the Swiss Parliament to approve later this year--"is not likely to cause severe problems for Swiss researchers," says Richard Braun, a Bern microbiologist who chairs Gen Suisse, a biotech advocacy group.