The Swiss Federal Court has put a preliminary halt to a field trial of genetically modified wheat that would have been Switzerland's first field trial of a GM crop. The ruling, which was based on a legal technicality rather than biosafety concerns, has surprised advocates and opponents of the trial alike.
The ruling of Switzerland's highest court is only the most recent chapter in a saga that has been dragging on for more than 2 years. In November 2000, Christof Sautter, a plant biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, submitted an application to sow wheat equipped with the viral gene KP4 on a small outdoor lot. The gene's product fights off a crop pest called stinking smut fungus. After 1 year of deliberations, the Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forest, and Landscape rejected the trial, saying that Sautter had failed to prove that it posed no environmental threat. ETH appealed the decision and finally got the go-ahead from the Swiss environment ministry last February.
This week's verdict came after various pressure groups including Greenpeace appealed, claiming that the trial posed an incalculable risk to the environment. Yesterday, to widespread surprise, the court ordered a halt to the trial for a completely different reason, ruling that the environment ministry had violated protocol by failing to formally consider the concerns of those opposing the trials. The ministry must now hear their arguments.
"I am very disappointed," says Sautter. Because the optimal time window for planting the wheat will close at the end of March, the trial will be delayed for at least another year. By that time, Sautter fears that researchers in other countries will have done the same experiments, making his redundant. Opponents of the trial are content with the ruling and are demanding that Sautter abandon plans for the trial. But he and others say they're determined not to give up.