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GM is safe – but not viable, says Swiss report

Genetically-modified food poses no risks to health or the environment but currently offers little benefit to Swiss agriculture, according to a report published by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

However, the development of genetically modified plants with combined properties such as herbicide tolerance and disease resistance could increase the use of the technology, says the report.

The publication brings together the conclusions of 36 projects conducted under a national research programme to determine the benefits and risks of the deliberate release of genetically modified plants. The programme was developed to address scientific and political questions surrounding GM technology in light of the five-year moratorium on GM crops introduced in Switzerland in 2005, which was subsequently extended until 2013.

Two literature reviews conducted under the programme found that there is no evidence to suggest genetic engineering itself offers any risk to health and the environment, but that undesirable effects may occur as a result of certain agricultural practices such as prolonged cultivation of a single crop. Eleven further research projects were unable to identify negative impacts of genetic engineering of a range of crops on environmental organisms or soil.

Researchers also conducted consumer surveys under the research programme, which found that the use of genetically modified plants in Swiss food remains controversial. Only a quarter of consumers would be willing to buy such products, but more than 80% of consumers said they should be provided with free choice between GM and non-GM produce.

GM technology must become more economically productive for farmers to begin cultivating such crops when the moratorium ends, which would require the introduction of multiple beneficial properties in a single crop, the report says. The co-existence of GM and non-GM would be possible if farms collaborate to form larger production zones, which would allow adequate isolation distances between fields and separation of product flows, but would require an amendment to current legislation under the Genetic Engineering Act, it adds.

The SNSF recommends that risk assessment of GM crops should take into account economic and social impacts as well as direct effects on health and the environment. It also highlights the need to pursue field trials for GM plants, despite the failure of previous attempts due to vandalism.