"More of the Same" in Switzerland?

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Science  13 Feb 1998:
Vol. 279, Issue 5353, pp. 963
DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5353.963e

Opponents of gene technology in Switzerland and elsewhere are portrayed as “mischievous…” (Rolf M. Zinkernagel, Editorial, 14 Nov., p. 1207) and “pseudoscientific and reactionary” (H. Olson, Letters, 9 Jan., p. 157) proponents of a “technological Stone Age” (Editorial, 14 Nov.). These accusations are symptomatic of the gulf between many scientists and thoughtful opponents of gene technology. The example of modern agriculture and the future role of genetic engineering is a case where divergent visions come sharply into focus. Modern agriculture is characterized by monoculture crops grown in degraded and often eroding soils. The majority of these crops are fed to animals raised under inhumane conditions that many organizations (including the World Health Organization) have characterized as harmful to human health. Simply put, these conditions are most probably not sustainable or environmentally sound, nor are they necessary to feed existing or projected world populations. It is also not easy to defend these practices for their ability to deliver low-cost food to the consumer. For many crops, consumers pay once in the supermarket and again with their taxes in the form of subsidies. Scientific research has contributed immeasurably to this state of affairs.

Critics of the status quo are often neither mischievous nor antiscience. They suggest, however, that scientific research, subsidies, regulations, and so forth be redirected to support sustainable techniques, many of which have been demonstrated to provide cheap, wholesome, and plentiful food to consumers. Sustainable agriculture is not “Stone Age.” On the contrary, it substitutes a sophisticated (and scientific) understanding of soil and biological processes for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides of proven harm.

It is incumbent upon scientists to understand that there is often a case to be answered in the application and development of new technologies. Perhaps, having noted the state of their food supply, the citizens of Switzerland are having a hard time concluding that what they need is “more of the same.”

"More of the Same" in Switzerland?

Latham and Franco Cavalli (Letters, 9 Jan., p. 157) appear to misinterpret my plea for reasonable regulation of gene technology instead of radical bans. The proposition to be voted on in Switzerland would ban the generation, importation, and use of transgenic animals, including flies and worms; it bans the release of genetically modified plants, as well as four other organisms, including recombinant viral vaccines. Also, a mandatory proof of benefit plus proof of absence of potential danger would be demanded before gene technology experiments with any organism not already banned would be permitted. Swiss scientists fully support the strict regulation of new technologies. Regulation could be strengthened further by a collection of laws called Gen-Lex that are now being debated generally and in the Swiss Parliament. There also appears to be a general and accepted wish among the Swiss public that foodstuffs containing genetically modified products must be marked accordingly.

One of the key characteristics of the “Stone” or “Middle” ages was that decisions were made on the basis of prejudice and belief. History has shown that to ban or prohibit technologies or ideas on these grounds is neither reasonable nor a workable solution: Adam and Eve's apple, Prometheus's fire, and Galileo Galilei's support of heliocentrism are famous “bad examples.”

Instead of demanding bans and statements about what we do not want, it seems better to me to state first what we do want to achieve. Should we not try to analyze and understand biology and nature first, and then decide what we want to do with our knowledge at national and international levels? In the context of the really big problems we confront, we are too many people who need to be better educated. We want to live better and longer, but fear many problems related to an aging society. We are often split between wishful thinking and what we effectively do ourselves in terms of respecting nature and preserving the environment. I am convinced that gene technology will help us solve some of these problems.

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