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The Swiss Academy of Arts and Sciences launches report on Genetic Engineering | 20.03.13


Genetic engineering represents the state-of-the-art in biomedical research and is used increasingly for diagnosis and treatment in day-to-day clinical situations. Almost without exception, the general public regards this so-called "red genetic engineering" as very progressive, and as something which has become indispensable.

In contrast, genetic engineering in plant research and cultivation is a controversial subject in Europe. Many consider this so-called "green genetic engineering" to be artificial and see it as being in opposition to organic cultivation, which is so popular here. Are the methods of genetic engineering actually so different from traditional plant cultivation methods as to legitimate such antagonistic sentiments?

In 2005, on the adoption of a popular initiative, a five-year moratorium was imposed on the cultivation of genetically modified plants. Shortly after, the National Research Programme NRP 59 began with the aim of researching the benefits and risks of genetically modified plants. Under the umbrella of NRP 59 questions were also posed on the issue of coexistence: is it possible to cultivate conventional and genetically modified plants side-by-side without undesirable crossbreeding taking place? This broadly based study concludes that genetically modified breeding does not present any risks to humans or their environment that are not also inherent in conventional cultivation methods, and that planting of conventional and genetically modified plants alongside each other is possible in Switzerland.

As previously done by other academies of natural sciences (e.g. the Royal Society in the UK and the Akademie Leopoldina in Germany), the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences have also looked into this issue. With the particular circumstances of Switzerland in mind, we would like to shed some light on the various aspects of green genetic engineering from a neutral and independent perspective. Is green genetic engineering worth investigating for sustainable agriculture in Switzerland? Are there any risks? What effects will the current situation have on the future of research in Switzerland? These and other topics are discussed here.

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Certain genetically modified plants (GMPs) could contribute to an agriculture that is both profitable and advantageous for the environment in Switzerland, as shown in this report by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. It follows on from a Research Programme of the Swiss National Science Foundation (NRP 59), which demonstrated that the cultivation of GMPs does not entail any environmental risks that do not also exist for conventionally bred plants. In conventional breeding, selected plants are repeatedly crossed with each other - and their DNA is thereby combined - until the desired combination of traits is achieved. With genetic modification on the other hand, segments of the plant's DNA are deliberately altered and DNA from related or unrelated species is introduced directly into the genetic material.

Currently, the GMPs which are predominantly cultivated worldwide are those which are tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate or which produce certain natural insecticides (Bt toxins). However, other agricultural crops are also being produced. Some of these possess stronger, plant-specific natural defences against pests, some can better tolerate drought, while others have an optimised nutritional composition. The modifications to the genetic material of these newer GMP crops are often created in such a way that very little DNA from unrelated species is present. If the resulting plant is considered rather than the method of creating it, then the line of demarcation between conventional breeding and genetic modification becomes increasingly faint. International experience with GMPs shows that increased pest resistance and herbicide tolerance can reduce the use of pesticides as well as the mechanical compaction of soil. Some of the GM food crops, which could become important in Switzerland in the future, include potatoes with a resistance to late blight, and apple trees with a resistance to fire blight and scab. Disease-resistant varieties are expected to significantly reduce the use of sprays, which in turn will mean less pollution of both the produce and the environment.

Even in Switzerland, where space is restricted, it would be perfectly possible for agricultural systems that use genetically modified crops to exist alongside those which do not. Cross-fertilization and cross-breeding can be reduced or prevented for most crops by taking specific measures; the requisite experience in maintaining the purity of seed stocks and harvested crops has been around for a long time. Any future regulation on coexistence must be scientifically based and adapted to the various crops and cultivation systems.

A moratorium in Switzerland which expires at the end of 2017 forbids the open-field cultivation of GM plants. GM plants developed in Swiss laboratories and greenhouses have, for the most part, been tested abroad in open field trials with international cooperation. Here in Switzerland, open field trials have to go through a longwinded and costly approval process. The few field trials that have been carried out in Switzerland up to now have moreover been disturbed by disruptive behaviour and even wilful destruction, which has significantly increased costs even further. Structures are therefore needed which protect GM crops in open fields from vandalism. This includes the "protected site" which is being prepared at the Agroscope facility in Zurich and which will be in operation from 2014. It is a matter of utmost concern to the Academies that public agricultural research is bolstered and that a scientifically based understanding of green genetic engineering is developed among the general public. It is their view that Switzerland should not readily dismiss the potential of green genetic engineering to contribute to sustainable agriculture and food security, especially as by doing so our country runs the risk of falling behind in this area of research and development.