Biotechnology: In brief

Widespread research is carried out in Switzerland on and with pathogenic, genetically modified or alien organisms. Thanks to appropriate safety measures, no serious incidents have occurred to date. The increased use of organisms in items such as cleaning or plant protection products poses new challenges. Assessing new genomic techniques for plant breeding also raises questions.

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.

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 what are known as contained 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 2020, approximately 2,775 activities involving GMOs and pathogens were carried out in Switzerland.
  • Newly registered activities involving the use of pathogens in contained systems, such as research and diagnostic laboratories, increased by half in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2013, Parliament decided to provide financial support for the development of a fenced and monitored protected site for research with GMOs. By 2020, eight release trials with genetically modified plants for research purposes were carried out on this Protected Site.

The trend away from chemical products is leading to the increased use of products such as biocides, fertilisers, plant protection products and cleaning agents that contain living organisms such as bacteria or beneficial insects. These are used, for example, to remediate soil contaminated with heavy metals, to control the larvae of tiger mosquitoes or to combat agricultural pests. The search for alternatives to chemical products will drive the research and development of innovations, and it is to be expected that further products containing organisms will increasingly find their way onto the Swiss market.


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.

In Switzerland, the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) plants for horticultural, forestry or agricultural purposes has been banned since 2005 due to a moratorium that will run until at least 2025. At present, importers refrain from bringing authorised GM food and feedstuffs into the country. However, Switzerland imports conventional agricultural products from countries in which GM plants are cultivated. Seeds from GM plants can thus enter the Swiss environment via unintentionally contaminated imported goods.

All plants sampled as part of rapeseed monitoring along the rail network have been GM-negative since 2017.

4. Risk to the environment (impacts)

The uncontrolled spread of GMOs, pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms (POs) and alien 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 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. The legal bases and instruments for ensuring biosafety are effective and adequate. In implementing them, the good working relationship with the cantons ensures a high level of safety with regard to working in contained systems.

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.

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.

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 19.12.2022

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