Swiss reject curbs on genetic engineering

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Proposals to severely restrict genetic engineering in Switzerland — for example by banning the use of transgenic animals in research and halting field trials with transgenic crops — were rejected in a referendum last Sunday (7 June) by a surprisingly strong majority.

Two-thirds of the voters rejected restrictions proposed in 1992 by 70 pressure groups opposed to biotechnology, bringing to an end months of bitter — and expensive — campaigning by both sides. The turnout of just over 40 per cent was particularly high for Switzerland, under whose system of government the electorate is frequently asked to vote on relatively minor legislative matters.

More than 80 per cent of the French- and Italian-speaking parts of the country voted ‘no’ in the referendum. But the ‘no’ vote was also higher than expected in German-speaking areas, where the population is more mistrustful of genetic engineering. The referendum's proposals were rejected in all of Switzerland's 26 cantons.

Most recent surveys had indicated that the vote would be very close and could swing either way (see Nature 393, 405; 1998). “We were sitting in our department all Sunday afternoon, listening to the radio and biting our nails,” says Sebastian Brandner, an assistant professor at the Institute for Neuropathology at the University of Zürich. “When the result became clear, the relief among all colleagues was palpable.”

Many believe that the willingness of prominent scientists to write popular newspaper columns and appear on television contributed to the clear ‘no’ vote. Those who had put themselves in the media spotlight included the Nobel laureate Rolf Zinkernagel, head of immunology at the University of Zürich, and Adriano Aguzzi, head of neuropathology at the university.

Politicians and researchers had warned that restrictions on genetic engineering would seriously harm the Swiss economy, and could cause the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in academic and industrial research departments.

The Swiss government will now continue with an initiative of its own called ‘Gen-Lex’, launched last year, which was intended in part to encourage waiverers to vote ‘no’ in the referendum by tightening and coordinating existing regulations on genetic engineering (see Nature 391 312; 1998).

The Gen-Lex initiative has broad support, including backing from industry. It includes, for example, a proposed adaptation of the animal protection law to ban the breeding of transgenic farm animals that might suffer pain.

It also proposes to extend the liability period for all genetic engineering activities, which is 20 years in the European Union, to 30 years in Switzerland. This means that a company or a research institute will be liable to pay for damage caused by a genetically engineered organism for up to 30 years after its first approved release into the environment.

These rules will come into effect in 1999 at the earliest. But a national ethics committee — another Gen-Lex initiative — has already been set up as a permanent advisory body for the government. This committee of 12 experts in science, ethics and law, advises on all ethical issues pertinent to the use of animals in genetics research.

The committee will also serve as an “institutionalized dialogue platform between experts, the government and the public,” according to Conrad Engler, head of gene technology at Interpharma, the association of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry.

Researchers recognize lack of dialogue as one reason for public scepticism about biotechnology.

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Schiermeier, Q. Swiss reject curbs on genetic engineering. Nature 393, 507 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31077

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