Switzerland : If People Are Asked They Say NO To GMOs

Florianne Koechlin, February 2011

27.11.2005 was a special day for Switzerland: All Swiss persons age 18 and older were asked to vote if they wanted a five years moratorium on commercial releases of GM crops in Switzerland: Yes or No. The initiative (1) was accepted by 55,7%. The main point being: Every single district, all 26 of them, said Yes to the moratorium. The moratorium is now part of the Swiss Constitution.

For the initiative we had to collect 110'000 signatures – which turned out to be quite easy. But still the positive result was a real surprise. The Swiss Government, the national Parliament, all middle and right wing parties as well as main stream science opposed the initiative. Their campaign contained all the known arguments: damage for the research location Switzerland, loss of jobs, economic disadvantages etc.

A historian told us that it was the first time ever in Swiss history that an initiative was won in all 26 districts, against the opposition of Government and Parliament. (There was one other initiative won in all districts: a request that August first, our national day, should be a public holiday – but this initiative was supported by the Government and all parties).

So: When people are asked about whether they want GMOs or not, they say No. The amazing support for the moratorium came from all the 'usual suspects' as well as many supporters of conservative, pro GMO-parties who voted against their own party's doctrine and also from people who normally do not bother to vote. So even in the home-country of Syngenta, Nestlé, Novartis &Co people say No to GM food. Interestingly these companies did not feature in the campaign against the referendum; it was the scientists and politicians who spoke on their behalf.

An important condition for the success of the initiative was the extremely broad coalition in support of it. You might say that a five years moratorium is not much, and some of the more radical NGOs (GreenPeace among them) did not support the initiative in the beginning. But this moderate request made it possible to build up a coalition from right to left. The conservative Swiss farmers union was on the boat, as well as the 'country women Switzerland', all organic farmer associations, all consumer, Third World, environment NGOs and many more. The driving force was the SAG (Schweizerische Arbeitsgruppe Gentechnologie), an umbrella organisation of all GMO-critical NGOs in Switzerland, where I'm on the steering committee. It was the first time that such a broad (and fragile) coalition took shape.

The ban on GM crops – and mainly the nationwide and intensive discussion of the moratorium before the vote – had a domino effect. Although some transgenic maize and soja lines are authorized in Switzerland, there is no GM food on offer on the market. And the amount of feed imports has decreased from year to year. Today, according to the statistics of the agriculture department, 99,9% of feed imports are GMOfree. So we're proud to say that Switzerland is GMO-free: no commercial releases, no transgenic food in the shelves, no transgenic feed on the market. And only three small experimental releases, which turned out to be a scientific fiasco (2).

A few years later, in 2009, the 5th conference of GMO-free regions in Europe was hosted in Lucerne, Switzerland. Switzerland, it seemed, offered possibility to more democracy, and a means to establish a moratorium for commercial releases of GMOs. To be clear: I'm not very proud of being Swiss in many aspects, but this legal possibility of the initiative and referendum seems to me to be a valuable model for people participation, for involving people in the democratic process.

Also in 2009, a year before the moratorium ended, there was a national discussion about how to proceed. Government and Parliament decided to prolong the moratorium for another 3 years, till 2013. What happened? Government and Parliament were still (nearly) the same, and still a majority of GMO-supporters. But it had become clear that the moratorium (which does not include experimental releases of GMOs) had in no way had a negative impact. (Also, of course, everybody knew that if they would not agree to a prolongation we would start another initiative).

To cite from the recommendation of the Government to the Parliament:

"The Government's opinion is, that neither in agriculture nor for consumers there is an urgent need for GMOs in food."

" According to consumer opinion there is not only no need for GMO products, but the rejection of them is perceived even as an advantage. What consumers want are high-quality, natural foods which have not been genetically modified."

"In the long run the three year extension of the moratorium has no effect for the economy as a whole. No consequences are to be expected for the job market or for the attractiveness of Switzerland as a location for business."

The moratorium turned out to be a good selling argument too: Swissness includes gentech free food. A competitive advantage on the European and international market for an agriculture which, in small spaced and hilly Switzerland, consists of many small farmers who have difficulties competing against vast monocultures.


(1) The Swiss constitution contains two tools for peoples participation other than elections:
With an initiative you can provoke a vote for a new article of the Swiss constitution. You have to collect at least 100'000 signatures in less than 18 months. Most initiatives are declined by the voters. With the referendum you can provoke a vote if you oppose a new law. You have to collect at least 50'000 signatures in less than 6 months. Changes in the Constitution are automatically put up for a vote.

(2) Transgenic mildew resistant wheat plants. Outside the greenhouse the production sank by 50% and they were 40% more susceptible to ergot, a toxic fungus.