by GRAIN | 20 Mar 1998

March 1998



Home of leading biotech giants Novartis, Hoffmann La Roche and Nestlé, Switzerland is currently entertaining a fierce debate over genetic engineering and the patenting of life forms. On June 7, 1998, the Swiss population will be the first in the world to vote on a constitutional amendment that aims to protect human health and the environment from the possible risks of this genetic engineering. NGOs have forced this referendum, causing the so-called Life Industry to launch a massive public relations campaign to avoid constitutional limits on their activities. The results of the Swiss referendum could have important repercussions for the genetech industry, governments and consumers worldwide. Miges Baumann and Michel Pimbert authored this article.


Thanks to NGO efforts, Switzerland is to be the first country to offer its people the chance to vote on issues related to genetic engineering. An alliance of about 70 NGOs has taken advantage of a law which states that if 100,000 citizens sign a demand for a constitutional amendment within a certain period of time, the government must organise a public vote on the issue. The NGOs represent a wide coalition of organisations with interests in environmental and consumer protection, animal rights, small farmers, development, religious and women’s issues. Together they collected the necessary signatures for the People’s Initiative ‘To Protect Life and the Environment against Genetic Manipulation’, which they delivered to the Swiss government in October, 1993.

The initiative appears to flow against the tide of a number of global processes, mediated by the forces of the World Trade Organisation and Northern governments, which seek to increase the power of transnational corporations and complete the privatisation of the global commons. This is the first time that a country will be democratically voting on these matters. The popular vote over life patent legislation in Switzerland sharply contrasts with the situation in other European countries where citizens have much more limited powers to directly intervene in decision making.

The European Patent Directive, for example, is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation the EU has ever prepared. Running up to the European Parliament’s first reading in July last year, the Parliament experienced what many MEPs called ‘the largest lobby campaign in the history of the House’. The power of money biased democratic debate and decision making. The second reading of the EU Patent Directive will be in early summer this year. And whilst ordinary citizens will do what they can to loudly oppose the Directive, they have no right of vote on the issue. Industry will, once again, clearly be at a comparative advantage to lobby and influence the outcome of the European Parliament’s decision on the EU Patent Directive.

The stakes for industry are huge. Patents are after all one of the main tools to create market monopolies over biological resources and exclude the original innovators (farmers, indigenous peoples, healers...) from their rightful access to local, national, and global markets. The Swiss initiative challenges the thrust towards the appropriation and privatisation of life. Its demands are straightforward and unequivocal: (see Box below for the exact wording of the proposed new article):

- No deliberate release of genetically modified organisms

- No patents on plants and animals and on parts thereof

- No production, trade and sale of transgenic animals

Additionally, it demands that legislative rules be established concerning the production, trade and sale of transgenic plants, the production of industrial products using GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and GMO research that could pose a risk for human health and the environment. If the majority of the Swiss population accepts the proposal made in the initiative, the amendments will have to be written as such into the constitution. People who say ‘No’ to genetic engineering and patents on life have therefore to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum on June 7, 1998.

The Swiss People's Initiative on Genetic Engineering

A new article of the Swiss constitution will contain the following:

1. The Confederation regulates against the excesses and dangers associated with the genetic modification of the hereditary material of animals, plants and other organisms. The Confederation thus acts to guarantee the dignity and integrity of living organisms, the preservation and enhancement of genetic diversity, as well as the safety of human beings, animals and the environment.

2. The following are forbidden:

a) the production, acquisition and distribution of genetically modified organisms

b) the dissemination of genetically modified organisms in the environment

c) the granting of patents on genetically modified plants and animals or parts of these organisms, for processes used, and for derived products.

3. The legislation lays down norms over:

a) the production, acquisition and distribution of genetically modified plants

b) the industrial production of substances derived from the use of GMOs

c) research using GMOs likely to present risks for human health and for the environment

4. Legislation demands that each claimant provides proof of the usefulness, safety and absence of alternative, and that he demonstrate that the proposed innovation is ethically acceptable.


The Rationale Behind the Demands

The three most important demands of the initiative reflect the main concerns and arguments of an important part of the Swiss society: the risks of GMO release into the environment and their presence in foodstuffs; the ethical and moral issues surrounding the patenting of life-forms, and the usefulness and appropriateness of genetically-engineered products.

1) GMO concerns

Swiss consumer and environmental organisations are strongly opposed to the intentional release of GMOs in the environment and their use in food products. Scientific evidence shows that genes introduced into a cultivated plant can rapidly spread to related wild species with unpredictable ecological consequences (1). This is particularly true for rape, sugar beet and alfalfa in Europe. Spontaneous hybridisation can readily occur as shown in experiments carried out on transgenic rape by Danish scientists (2, 3). They found that the herbicide-resistant gene in the transgenic crop was transferred to wild rape populations (Brassica campestris) in a single generation. B. campestris is a common ‘weed’ in rape fields. Its chemical control would be more difficult if its populations acquired the herbicide-resistant gene, which could have unpredictable consequences on ecosystems.

Several other transgenic crops like cotton and maize are being engineered to be resistant to insect and virus pests. The introduced genes result in the production of chemicals that are toxic to the target species. But they are not the only species that eat or are in contact with the transgenic crops. Several non-target species could also be harmed: human beings, other mammals, and ecologically-important species like pollinating insects and biological control agents could also be affected. For example, soil micro-organisms responsible for the maintenance of soil fertility and plant health are known to be affected by toxic substances of transgenic origin (4). Contamination occurs when the micro-organisms come into contact with the roots of the genetically engineered plant or with crop residues left after harvest.

Swiss consumers are also concerned that the routine incorporation of marker genes resistant to antibiotics represents a potential public health hazard given the ease with which antibiotic resistance spreads in human populations. For example, resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin, used in the fight against tuberculosis, has been genetically engineered into the transgenic ‘FlavrSavr’ tomato. Another concern is the potential allergy-inducing effects of transgenic crops (5). It is thus hardly surprising that a large majority of the Swiss population wishes to exercise its right to choose. Swiss people are simply asking for stricter controls and that the precautionary principle be more widely adopted in the face of considerable uncertainties about the impacts of transgenic foods on human health.

Incomplete or partial scientific knowledge on the behaviour of transgenic crops and the stability of their genes, as well as the remarkable lack of knowledge on ecosystem function (6), have all given more weight to popular wisdom: ‘Let’s not take unnecessary risks for our children. After all, the experts don’t really know what could happen.’

2) Patenting life

The genes of living organisms and traditional knowledge of the uses of plants and animals have become prized commodities for the genetech industry. Patents allow corporations and research labs to control these genetic and intellectual resources and to gain financially from them. In addition to the ethical questions surrounding this ‘privatisation’ of genetic material, the debate in Switzerland has also focused on the political issues of access, control and commercialisation of genetic resources originating in the South. The bulk of the planet’s biological diversity is located in developing countries, and more specifically, in the areas where indigenous people and small farmers live. The centres of origin and diversification of cultivated plants like maize, potatoes and aubergines offer a huge reservoir of genetic material for the new biotechnologies. Similarly, the soils of tropical countries contain strains of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that are used in the development of pest-resistant transgenic crops.

Local, traditional knowledge of the uses of plants is also appropriated by corporations eager to develop new natural products. However, the intellectual contributions of local people who have conserved and improved these resources over generations are neither recognised nor rewarded by the patent system. By failing to recognise local innovations and the intellectual contributions of rural people, patents offer no national or local incentives — economic or otherwise — for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. They contribute to widening the gap between the North and the South as well as between the powerful and the weak within countries.

The South’s germplasm contributions to the North’s plant improvement and biotechnology programmes have largely gone unrewarded. The United States government estimates that access to exotic germplasm adds a value of US$3,200 million to the country’s US$11,000 million annual soybean crop, and about US$7,000 million to its $18,000 million annual maize crop. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) estimated in 1996 that the value to the North of germplasm from the South was at least US$5,000 million per year. Swiss development NGOs involved in the debate on genetic engineering have openly condemned such inequities.

Many Swiss farmer organisations anticipate that the granting of patents on living organisms will erode their rights and further reduce their control over production. A farmer who grows a maize or wheat variety protected by an industrial patent will be under the obligation to pay royalties to the owner of such intellectual property. Corporations who hold such patents will be in a position to forbid farmers to save protected seed for the next year’s sowing and could prevent farmers from exchanging seed among themselves. Swiss farmers would thus lose their traditional right to conserve, multiply and select plants and animals on their farms, as control for these activities is passed on to corporations that hold the patents.

Swiss environmental organisations are concerned that such a dependency on the genetech multinationals would lead to a rapid replacement by genetically uniform crop varieties and animal breeds of the still diverse stock of domesticated plant and animals. Patents are thus perceived as reinforcing a logic of production based on genetic standardisation and external industrial inputs (pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics, etc) that are often harmful for the environment and public health.

3) Product utility and safety

The Swiss initiative calls for patent claimants to give proof of the usefulness and safety of the new product, of the absence of alternatives, and that the proposed genetic modification is ethically acceptable. If the initiative on genetic engineering is accepted by a majority vote, it will be mandatory to ask for such proof and guarantees. This aspect of the initiative openly challenges the prerogative of the scientific expert and his or her employer (usually a multinational corporation) to decide alone on the choice of biotechnology, on who benefits and on the risks that society has to accept. The main idea here is to put the issue of democratic control over scientific research —over its forms and end uses— at the centre of political debates in Switzerland.

The Battle on the Governmental Front

Predictably, industry reacted strongly to the proposal. Industry pressure was evident in the initial parliamentary debate over the initiative, but a weaker version of the initiative proposed by a minority parliamentary group was rejected in parliament. The government then moved to vote against the initiative. But this move increased public opposition to genetic engineering to such an extent that industry representatives went all out to propose a counter strategy. This culminated in the birth of an alternative, so-called ‘GenLex’ initiative, which proposed changes to existing rules and regulations to address the issues under discussion. Most of the government proposals, however, are considered to be merely cosmetic by the proponents of the People’s Initiative, and the patent issue is not addressed at all. Nevertheless, the GenLex alternative is now one of the main focuses of the industry campaign.

The GenLex proposals relating to liability for environmental damages caused by GMOs illustrate the spirit of the entire GenLex exercise. GenLex proposes stricter rules of liability for possible environmental damages. These rules, however, would sink farmers but let biotech companies off the hook. For example, it would be the farmer who releases the GMOs who would be liable for short- and long-term (up to 30 years) damages, not the biotech company for selling a potentially dangerous product! This Swiss industry response is similar to that of the corporate lobbies which have biased the biosafety negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Industry simply refuses to address socio-economic considerations or accept civil or criminal responsibility.

The Battle for Votes

The real battle, however, is in the domain of the Swiss voters. Recognising how high the stakes have been raised, industry strategists have enlisted the help of the public relations company Burston-Marsteller (for the princely sum of 35 million Swiss Francs or US$24 million) in their attempt to win over voters. Interpharma — the lobbying and PR body of the Swiss chemical industry — is the vanguard behind which industry is hiding in the public battle. Interpharma, in turn, has used a set of organisations with a scientific cover to lead the attack, such as GEN SUISSE, a group of scientists and politicians, and FORUMGEN, a similar group that was set up by the powerful industry lobby group in Swiss politics called Wirtschaftsf├â┬Ârderung’ (Industry Promotion). Publicly-known personalities from science, and liberal, sympathetic politicians from national and regional parliaments actively support these groups.

Manufacturing Acceptance of Genetech Products

Facing widespread opposition to the use of genetic engineering in food production, the genetech industry has been working hard to figure out its next moves. In 1996 EuropaBio - the umbrella association for the biotechnology companies doing business in Europe - decided to contract the services of Burston-Marsteller (B-M), one of the biggest international public relations (PR) agencies world wide. B-M has often been the company of choice for corporations and governments dealing with inflammatory situations like the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal and the Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis crisis in the UK .

Burston-Marsteller proved again to be an efficient greenwasher, and in January 1997 it delivered the Communications Programmes For EuropaBio, which found its way to Greenpeace. B-M's central message was that the industry should not act as its own advocate, because the public perceives - quite correctly - that it is motivated by self-interest. Instead, it should let others do the job for the industry.

B-M recommended that food processors and retailers, who are not perceived as having a direct stake in the adoption of genetic engineering, and are seemingly free to choose and transparent, are the ideal advocates to instruct the public on the advantages of genetic engineering. They are the ones who can create positive perceptions of biotechnology and sing the praises of government regulators.

In the meanwhile, B-M recommends that the life industry become very active in its press work, by continuously feeding news-hungry journalists, and especially radio stations, with stories rather than issues, and talking about attractive products rather than technologies.

By having others - retailers, policy makers, scientists - promoting the new technology, and constantly feeding the media with good, nice stories on biotechnology, the life industry needs only to follow one more piece of advice: never to visit the killing fields of environmental and human health risks, since the industry cannot be expected to prevail in public opposition to adversarial voices on these issues. The genetech industry - in Switzerland and all over Europe - has been closely following the advice.

The Swiss affiliate of B-M, Jaeggi Burston-Marsteller, is in charge of the campaign against the people’s initiative and acts on behalf of GEN SUISSE. The Swiss weekly news magazine, Facts, in its 30th number, published the 35 million Swiss Franc network of organisations that work for and receive money from the industry. Daily advertisements in newspapers, magazines and billboards started to appear early in 1997. The campaign against the initiative first concentrated on the advantages of genetic engineering in medical research — an area where public acceptance is already quite high. However, medical research is an issue that is not covered directly by the people’s initiative. The line of arguments in the advertisements is simplistic and plays on fear: ‘No genetech — no cure’. Scientists suggest that pharmaceutical research can only be undertaken with transgenic test animals, which would be banned should the initiative be accepted.

A more recent angle of the campaign against the People’s Initiative contends that it would bring biotech research to a complete standstill. This argument is mainly made by scientists from public research organisations, arguing that research cannot prove its utility in advance. This argument, however, can easily be countered. About 90% of current genetic engineering research is classified as not posing a risk to human health and environment, and according to the proposed paragraph 4 no proof for the utility of this research is needed, since paragraph 4 applies only in relation to paragraph 3c, which deals with the use of GMOs. Apart from this technical issue, society should not accept the argument that scientific research is beyond its comprehension or control.

According to a public opinion poll, 57% of the Swiss population would have voted ‘yes’ to the initiative in November 1997. This must have alarmed industry considerably. The amount of advertising and the tone of public panel debates has heated up considerably since then.

Political parties and interest groups do not usually decide on their position in a referendum until the voting date is released. But interestingly, the Social Democratic Party announced its official position (a resounding ‘yes’) as early as autumn 1997. In February 1998, the industry had another surprise. The Social Democratic Party of the canton (state) of Basle, Switzerland’s capital, decided with a 2/3 majority in favour of the initiative. Basle is the home of Novartis and Roche and the bastion of the Swiss biotech industry. Nevertheless, delegates in Basle decided to support the initiative, even against the recommendations of its cantonal party leadership. The small farmers and biological farmers’ associations also voted in favour of the initiative. The mainstream farmers’ association decided not to support it, although the position of individual members and farmers is probably not so clearly in favour of genetic engineering. Many observers are surprised to see that public sector scientists are almost united in their stance against the initiative. Some possible reasons for this are:

- Public sector research in biotechnology is more dependent on the Life Industry than most people realise.

- There is considerable pressure within the scientific community for a uniform position.

- If the money for public research does not come directly from an industry/university joint venture, it is often provided by the Swiss National Fund to Promote Public Research. The latter is a government body in which industry-connected scientists largely decide over the allocation of research funds.

- Industry keeps a close watch on the scientific community. When — in a public panel for example — a scientist takes a moderate position against the initiative and admits to some limits or possible risks of genetic engineering, he risks getting a call from some industry headquarters.

- It is an accepted dogma that the public should not interfere with the activities of scientists and the directions of scientific enquiry. Scientists — even if they work for public sector institutions — are simply not used to the fact that the public has a say over the allocation of public research funds. The idea of being publicly accountable is very new and foreign to most scientists.

With their limited resources, NGOs are trying to convince the public that the People’s Initiative will not lead to a complete ban on all genetic engineering. Research and development of medicines and other products using transgenic micro-organisms or cell cultures will still be possible in closed systems. The initiative, however, places limits on the development and use of techniques that are potentially harmful to society and the environment.

The NGO coalition behind the initiative is co-ordinated through the Swiss Working Group on Genetic Engineering (SAG - Schweizerische Arbeitsgruppe Gentechnologie). The money for the campaign comes mainly from donations of individual citizens, supported by the participating NGOs. SAG’s campaign budget is tiny in comparison with the huge resources deployed by industry, but the NGOs could still win their David and Goliath battle. This would be a sensational victory for Switzerland. It would also send a clear message around the world that people need not stand by impotently as the genetech industry’s corporate greed sweeps all other concerns aside. Their opinions count and their voices can be heard.


Bibliographic notes:

1. Biosafety: Scientific findings and elements of a protocol (1996). Report of the independent group of scientific and legal experts on biosafety, Malaysia.

2. Mikkelsen, TR et al., (1996), Nature, 380:31.

3. Chevre, AM et al., ‘Colza transgenique et risques environnementaux.’ Biofutur 172: 44-46.

4. Hoffman T et al., 1994. Current genetics 27:70-76.

5. Amman, D (1996), Génie génétique et production alimentaire. Presse des Médecins en faveur de l’environnement.

6. Ho, M (1997). Genetic engineering dreams or nightmare? The brave new world of bad science and big business. Research foundation for Science, Technology and Development/Third World Network.

Author: GRAIN