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Switzerland Creates Secure Test Site for GM Crops

28 February 2013 12:20 pm
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Secure site. Switzerland will provide security for field trials of genetically modified crops at this research station near Zurich.

The Swiss government will create a permanently protected area on federal land for experiments with genetically modified (GM) crops. The goal is to enable researchers to run experimental trials without running the risk that the fields will be vandalized and to reduce costs associated with security.

In a paper published today in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, scientists from the Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon research station and the University of Zurich detail the plan, which was approved by the Swiss Parliament and officially announced on 7 February.

GM crops are controversial in Europe, and European law requires scientists to notify the public about the precise locations of the fields where they are running experiments. This has led to protests and sometimes vandalism at more than 100 European trials since 2010. One result is that the number of GM field experiments conducted in the European Union dropped from about 250 per year in the late 1990s to fewer than 50 in 2011, the researchers report. In Switzerland, researchers have submitted just six applications for field experiments with GM plants since the late 1990s; authorities rejected two in 1999 because "the social and environmental impacts compared to any possible economic benefits were clearly too high."

In a bid to make such experiments easier, the Swiss Federal Council approved spending €600,000 annually from 2014 to 2017 to create a protected field site of approximately three hectares at the Reckenholz research station, 10 kilometers north of Zurich. Researchers will initially use it to test GM wheat with resistance to powdery mildew, a fungal disease, but they could ultimately plant other crops such as potatoes.

The Reckenholz site is already being used for GM experiments and other types of research. In 2008, a group of more than 30 masked activists threatened researchers at a nearby field site and destroyed about one-third of their experimental plants. In 2009, the researchers used grant funds to install three surveillance cameras, build a double fence with barbed wire and motion sensors, and hire security guards who kept a day-round watch.

The study released today estimates that Swiss researchers running recent GM trials spent 78% of their research funds on security. Now, the Swiss government will carry those costs at the Reckenholz site, enabling researchers to use more of their grants for science.

The move shows that legislators believe approved GM experiments "should be protected and that the research agenda should not be determined by vandals," writes Michael Winzeler, a co-author of the paper and a senior researcher at the Reckenholz station, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.

The plan comes 5 years after two plant scientists of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, Peter Urwin and Howard Atkinson, called for protection of European transgenic crop research in a letter to Nature.

Atkinson says he is pleased with the Swiss plan: "You can't have a policy based on evidence if the data cannot be collected. This site will be good for that."

The Swiss government and public do not have a pro-GM reputation. In 2005, voters approved a 5-year moratorium on the commercial use of GM products, which has been extended until 2017. The moratorium includes an exception for scientific research.

"Still, that record suggests that there is no demand among Swiss citizens for GM plants on their plates, says Marianne Kuenzle, GM specialist at the environmental group Greenpeace Switzerland, which opposes GM technologies. "This field site is a waste of money. If you look at this symbolically, the fact that these studies will happen behind fences shows that there is no public acceptation of this technology." The group says it will scrutinize applications to perform GM crop trials and consider ways to prevent the establishment of the field site.

EuropaBio, the European association for bio-industries, says the Swiss move is both good and bad news. "The biotech industry welcomes this possibility to carry out research but laments that it has to happen under such conditions," the group wrote in a statement. "The need for protected field sites is a sad reflection of the power of anti-science groups, who prevent public and private research to be done in Europe."

Anne Glover, the European Commission's chief scientific adviser, says she strongly supports controlled field trials of GM plants. "[I]t is the only way we can gather evidence on any adverse impacts they may have on humans, animals and the environment as well as gauge their efficacy," she wrote in a statement. "Citizens deserve complete transparency, but they also deserve the possibility to use the best science available to meet some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century."

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