GENET archive


RISK ASSESSMENT: Swiss National Fund excludes prominent researcherfrom risk assessment program on GE plants

                                 PART I
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Protest against National Fund
SOURCE: Tages-Anzeiger, Switzerland
AUTHOR: Daniel Bächtold, translated by Hartmut Meyer, GENET
DATE:   15.05.2007

more information at:
NRP 59 - Benefits and Risks of the Deliberate Release of Genetically
Modified Plants
International Project on GMO Environmental Risk Assessment Methodologies

Protest against National Fund

The National Fund is going to assess the benefits and risks of GE
plants. A renown researcher of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
in Zürich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, ETH) will be left out.

When on June 30 the National Fund informs about the new National
Research Program (Nationales Forschungsprogramm, NFP), one researcher
will not be present. Angelika Hilbeck of the Institute for Integrative
Biologie of the ETH Zürich - an internationally acknowledged researcher
in risk assessment of gene technology - is not going to take part in the
NFP 59. During the next four years, this research program will assess
the "benefits and risks of deliberate release of genetically engineered
plants" in Switzerland.

Hilbeck coordinated a group of scientists from various Swiss research
institutions who planned to give answers on still open questions
concerning the deliberate release of genetically engineered plants:
What, for example, is the fate of transgenes in the soil, how do they
move from one plant to the next, and can different plants protect
themselves differently against this flux of genes?

The applications of Hilbeck and her collegues have been either bluntly
rejected by the National Fund or have been cut down financially to such
an extent that the researches have withdrawn them. Hardly any other
previous research program is in the centre of public interest as the NFP
59. In November 2005, the Swiss people voted for a five-year moratorium
on the commercial planting of genetically engineered plants.

The NFP 59 now could give answers on the fears and concerns of the
critics of genetic engineering. It is still not yet decided how the NFP
59 will be structured and which researches will be supported with how
much money. But it is certain that the submitted research proposals are
exceeding the financial limit - 12 Million Swiss Francs (7.3 Mill EUR/
9.8 Mill USD). Only 39 of the initially 92 research concepts sent in
made it into the next round. The remaining concepts have been rejected
already last November.

The absence of Hilbeck and her group in the NFP 59 is puzzling -
especially in the light of the recent order of the German Federal Office
of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (Bundesamtes für
Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit, BVL) which was made public
last week. Due to this order, genetech-maize MON810 of the U.S. company
Monsanto can only be grown commercially in Germany when the effects of
the cultivation will be monitored and examined scientifically.

In its letter to Monsanto the BVL points out that there are "legitimate
reasons to assume" that the planting of MON810 would pose a "risk for
the environment". Several scientific studies have been quoted
accordingly - amongst them publications of Hilbeck and other researchers
who cooperate closely with her. MON810 is a so-called Bt-maize. Due to a
gene of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), MON810 produces
an insecticide that should fight pest insects as for example the corn borer.

In the letter, the BVL explains that "nontarget organisms of higher
trophic levels of the food chain" are as well exposed to the toxin.
Further more: "Currently, the effect and the live time of the plant-
derived toxin in soil are unclear, they bear relatively high potentials
for ecological effects". A monitoring should assess the effects of the
toxin and the possible spread of the bacterial gene in the case of
MON810. Amongst others, the German authorities cite the researcher from
Zürich, when they write about the "risk for the environment" which would
originate from the respective genetech-maize.

Ecologic cycles not yet understood

The Swiss National Fund can obviously ignore the expertise of Hilbeck,
who since years fights against the attitude of many proponents of
genetechnology to sweep the risks under the carpet. Upon request, the
National Fund only explained that there is much experience with NFPs.
And a scientifically "balanced program" had been developed. This would
allow to answer the questions posed by the Federal Council [the Swiss

Within the context of the NFP 59, Hilbeck and her collegues planned to
assess if a product of a bacterial gene that has been introduced into a
plant is still activ after it has passed the digestive tract of a sheep
or pig and with the manure has reached the soil. Further more, they
planned to find out what happens to the gene product in the soil
afterwards. Deliberate releases with genetically engineered maize would
have brought additional knowledge.

"These cycles have never been investigated comprehensively," states
Hilbeck, only parts of its were known. "We have formed a team that
unlike any other team in Switzerland could have investigated this
problem in its entirety." All gained data would have been fed into a
risk assessment model that has already benn tested by the researchers in
several countries. The development of this method has been funded by the
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Federal Office for
the Environment with 2 Mill Francs (1.2 Mill EUR/1.6 Mill USD). In the
context of the NFP 59, it should have been applied in Switzerland as
well - so far the plans of the researchers.

But the National Fund obviously was of different opinion. With its
decision, an internationally renowned risk assessment researcher has
been excluded from the NFP 59. And even more: a researcher who
participated in the set up of the aims of the research program.

Arbitrary reasons to reject?

Hilbeck is convinced that the decision of the prime Swiss research
funding organization has nothing to do with science. "Apparently, other
criteria which we were never told triggered the decision. It has never
happened to me that a project has been shot down in such a way," Hilbeck
says. Months ago, she explained in a protest letter to the National Fund
that the reasons to reject the project were "arbitrary" and "a gut
reaction", not being a "very scientifical jugdement". Other researchers
also sent protest letters to the National Fund. They state for example
that almost every point in the statement rejecting the project was
either "demonstrably false" or "unhelpfully vague".

In two weeks, the NFP 59 will presented to the public. If the winners of
the moratorium initiative are as well of the opinion that the program is
"balanced" is right now questionable - at least.

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                                 PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Scientists plan new GM crop trials
SOURCE: swissinfo, Switzerland
DATE:   16.05.2007

Scientists plan new GM crop trials

Three years after a series of controversial field experiments with
genetically modified (GM) wheat, Swiss scientists are planning similar
crop trials.

Two teams of university researchers have applied to carry out tests near
Zurich and Lausanne, including observations of potential crossbreeding
between wheat and wild grass.

The proposed field trials by Zurich University's Institute of Plant
Biology and the Institute of Plant Sciences at the city's Federal
Institute of Technology would form part of a planned national research

The aim would be to help answer questions about the release of
transgenic plants, specifically in Switzerland.

"It is important to clearly say that we are not developing a product for
the market," Beat Keller, a lead researcher on the project, told swissinfo.

"We want to find out if GM wheat plants that we have already tested in
the labs, which show improved resistance to fungal diseases, also
[behave in a similar way] in the field in normal agricultural environments."

They also intend to look at aspects of biological safety to see if the
plants have any unexpected impact on the environment, as well as
organisms living in the ground or insects.

If the Federal Environment Office gives the go-ahead, trials will run
over a two-year period from 2008 in Reckenholz near Zurich, and in
Pully, on the outskirts of Lausanne. The office is expected to reach its
decision within the next three months.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remain a highly contentious issue
in Switzerland. In November 2005 the Swiss voted in favour of a five-
year ban on the use of GMOs in agriculture. Scientific research,
however, is still permitted.

During discussions before the vote all political parties said it was
necessary and essential to increase research into this topic and use the
five-year moratorium period to clarify questions.

But the last GM crop trials in Switzerland, which took place in Lindau
near Zurich in 2004, resulted in major opposition and a lengthy legal battle.

Keller is certain that there will be resistance to the project, but
hopes that there will be better public acceptance than three years ago.

"There is a clear need and demand from society to clarify questions," he

"And the project also includes a very broad consortium of research
groups which will approach it from many different angles."


GM opponents were quick to react to Tuesday's announcement.

"We are very concerned. We don't want trials that are a Trojan horse,"
said Herbert Karch, a committee member of the Swiss Working Group for
Genetic Engineering (SAG).

While trials are allowed in principle, SAG is doubtful whether the
proposals meet strict criteria set out in the law on genetic engineering.

It also questions the use of wheat in the trials. "There is no need for
these kind of plants," said Karch.

No country currently grows GM wheat and producers refuse to do so, SAG
said in a statement on Tuesday.

"We are doing fundamental research and it's a fact that for clarifying
questions about the use of transgenic plants in Switzerland, wheat is
probably the best crop as it is among the most-grown. It's an obvious
choice," replied Keller, trying to placate opponents' fears.

Environmental organisation Greenpeace, which opposed the 2004 trial both
in the courts and with a demonstration at the site, also expressed its
surprise about the news and warned about what it considers to be the
dangers of GMOs for the environment, and for the health of both humans
and animals.

Yves Zenger, spokesman for Greenpeace, said the majority of Swiss
people, like others in many parts of the world, were against the release
of GMOs.

The organic farming association Bio Suisse, while supporting GM research
in a closed environment, said it was extremely wary of field trials of
modified organisms.

Before approving the tests, it said the authorities should carry out a
complete and detailed risk analysis.

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