Swiss transgenic vote hangs in balance

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Tension is running high among scientists in Switzerland on the eve of the country's referendum on genetic engineering, to be held next Sunday (7 June).

Some are backing an initiative provocatively called ‘Genepeace’, launched by student supporters of genetic engineering in Zürich, Basel and Bern. Genepeace aims to promote peaceful dialogue between geneticists and opponents of genetic engineering — but also warns of the consequences of its possible abandonment in Switzerland.

The referendum proposes a ban on research involving genetically modified animals and on field trials with genetically modified plants (see Nature 392, 741; 1998). Despite discreet lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry — and grim warnings of the possible consequences of a ‘yes’ vote — the outcome of the referendum remains highly uncertain.

The most recent survey, by the German-speaking Swiss Television TVDRS two weeks ago, found that 39 per cent of interviewees were opposed to the ban, 37 per cent were in favour, and the rest were undecided.

But in an earlier survey by the newspaper Sonntagsblick, only 16 per cent said they would vote for the abandonment of genetic research, with 32 per cent saying they intended to vote against, while more than 50 per cent were still undecided.

In fact, the result may have already been decided, because a large proportion of voters has delivered postal votes. Conrad Engler, head of gene technology at Interpharma, the association of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, says that campaigners for and against the ban are now usually told by the public they approach: “You don't have to convince me any more; I have already voted.”

Nevertheless pressure groups have been stepping up their campaigning efforts — some serious, others less so — over the past few weeks. Greenpeace and the World Wild Fund for Nature, for example, are suing the University of Geneva for selling transgenic mice as animal food to zoos.

Greenpeace has also sued academics — including Klaus Ammann, head of the botanical garden in Bern, and Beda Stadler, a professor of immunology in Bern, both of whom had joined the ‘Genepeace initiative’ — for abuse of its name and logo.

Genepeace includes among its members Rolf Zinkernagel, director of the Institute for Experimental Immunology at the University of Zürich and 1996 Nobel laureate.

The initiative was launched after 20 or so Greenpeace activists mixed with the crowd of 3,000 students, academics, medical doctors and researchers who demonstrating in April in Zürich against the proposed bans on genetic engineering.

The Greenpeace activists carried placards that differed only subtly from those of the scientists. Greenpeace changed ‘Gen Suisse’, the name of a foundation supporting gene technology, into ‘Gen Bschiss’, a German word for ‘swindle’. In revenge, supporters of genetic engineering found a pun of their own, and launched ‘Genepeace’. Ammann and Stadler are among those who have worn T-shirts bearing the ‘Genepeace’ logo, which, according to Greenpeace, was deliberately intended to confuse the public.

Despite the high emotions that the campaign has generated, little more than 40 per cent of the Swiss population are expected to cast a vote.

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Schiermeier, Q. Swiss transgenic vote hangs in balance. Nature 393, 405 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/30821

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