Biotechnology: In brief

Genetically modified, pathogenic and alien organisms are widely researched in Switzerland. To date, no serious incidents have occurred that put human beings, animals or the environment at risk. A moratorium prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. Nevertheless, some GMOs are able to enter Switzerland in contaminated imported goods. The presence of GMOs in the environment is therefore being monitored.

1. Research, agricultural production abroad (drivers) 

Technological progress has led to the increased use of genetically modified organisms (GMO), pathogenic organisms (PO) and alien organisms. For example, GMOs and POs are regularly used in the research and development of new drugs in the pharmaceutical sector and medicine.

Plants that have been made tolerant to plant protection products or toxic to certain harmful insects through genetic modification are playing an increasingly important role in the global production of food and animal feed. The cultivation of GM plants is increasing in particular in newly industrialised countries with rapid growth rates (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, China and India).

2. Use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pathogenic organisms (POs) and alien organisms (pressures)

A lot of biotechnology research in Switzerland is currently carried out in so-called ‘closed systems". The purpose of these systems is to prevent GMOs, POs and invasive alien organisms from coming into contact with the population or environment, and keep them in the controlled environments of the laboratories, production plants and greenhouses.

  • At the end of 2014, approximately 2,240 activities involving GMOs and pathogens were registered in Switzerland.
  • In the early 1990s, a huge increase was recorded in the use of GMOs in research. Another significant increase in these activities has been observed since 2007.

Up to 2014, four release experiments with genetically modified plants were carried out and completed in Switzerland for research purposes. In 2013, parliament decided to provide financial support for the development of a fenced and monitored protected site for research with GMOs. A release experiment was initiated on the protected site for the first time in 2014, and four experiments were conducted there in 2018 on pathogen-resistant wheat, potatoes and apple trees and wheat with increased yield potential.

Four genetically modified plant varieties (one soy and three maize varieties) have been authorised for marketing as food and animal feed in Switzerland but must be declared as such. However, their sales remain very low due to the negative attitude of consumers towards GMOs.


3. Isolated cases of GMOs in the environment (state)

Due to the global increase in areas for the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, the probability of the unintentional spread of GMOs in the environment is increasing. This makes it more difficult to keep GMO products and genetic-technology-free products separate.

Since 2005, a moratorium has prohibited the cultivation of GMOs in Switzerland. However, seeds from GM plants can enter the country as contaminants in conventional agricultural products because Switzerland cannot fully satisfy its own demand for agricultural products and depends on imports, which may come from countries in which GM plants are cultivated. Up until now, GM plants have been found only in isolated cases, and the percentage of positive tested plants has always been below 2%.

4. Risk to the environment (impacts)

The uncontrolled spread of organisms in the environment is undesirable because it can put human health and the environment, biodiversity and, in the case of GMOs, GMO-free production at risk.

Many microorganisms and parasites have the ability to cause diseases in humans, animals and plants. Some organisms can even cause permanent damage or death. Examples include Ebola viruses, anthrax bacteria and the foot-and-mouth viruses. Other organisms can also trigger allergic reactions in humans.

From an environmental perspective, it is also important to prevent increased resistance, the reduction in soil fertility and the impairment of biodiversity.

Because of a lack of long-term experience and the corresponding research basis, it is impossible to assess how the increased spread of biotechnology and gene technology will affect human health, biodiversity and the co-existence of different species in the long term. The federal authorities regularly commissions research projects in these areas.

5. Precautionary principle, legislative bases (Responses)  

The precautionary principle is particularly important in the area of biotechnology as we do not currently have sufficient information on the long-term or indirect environmental effects of genetically modified organisms.

The handling of such organisms in Switzerland is regulated by law. The legislation

  • prescribes a general duty of care,
  • regulates handling in contained systems,
  • imposes safety measures, risk assessments and a duty of notification, authorisation and information.

Thanks to continuous awareness-raising, a culture of biosafety has developed since the turn of the century. However, developments in biotechnology are taking place at a rapid pace (e.g. new plant breeding methods. These are understood to include newly developed molecular biology methods that allow targeted modification of plant genetic material without having to rely on traditional methods of genetic technology. The legal status of these new procedures has been the subject of discussions on both the national and international stage.

The cultivation and processing of genetically modified plants (GM plants) in agriculture has been met with public opposition, which has created reservations in political circles as well. Since 2005, a moratorium has prohibited the cultivation of GMOs.  In 2017, the moratorium was extended by parliament until 2021. Releases for research purposes are approved by federal authorities when they satisfy the statutory requirements.

Given the possibility of contamination from imported goods, federal authorities nevertheless monitor for the presence of unintentionally released GMOs. This is done in collaboration with the cantons.  Monitoring methods are continuously developed and adapted to the global situation with respect to the cultivation of GMOs.  Moreover, the federal authorities annually check whether products sold on the market, such as food, animal feed or seeds, comply with the law.

The use of GMOs is regulated on an international level by the Cartagena Protocol. The Cartagena Ordinance (OCart) transposes the Protocol into Swiss law and determines what information must be presented to ensure that the required safety checks for the import of GMOs can be carried out.  


Further information

Last modification 30.11.2018

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