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Of Politics and Precaution: “Frankenfood” Frenzy in Europe

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As the 1990s wore on, opposition to GM food in Europe grew with incredible speed and vigor, fueled by mistrust in government regulators over the mad cow disease—or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)—crisis and concerns over corporate commandeering of local food supplies and traditions. Most analysts of the anti-GM phenomenon in Europe would later cite 1998 and the furor over BSE as a major turning point in consumer attitudes toward genetically engineered food. But while the Flavr Savr tomato had narrowly escaped consumer rejection in the mid-1990s, a latent mistrust of biotechnology had been brewing behind the scenes in Europe long before the BSE crisis made the news.

As early as 1992, anti-biotechnology activists in Switzerland had managed to convince the public that biotechnology was something to be concerned about. Switzerland boasts a direct democracy form of government that allows citizens to introduce referenda to a national vote upon collection of 100,000 signatures. It is a wealthy and relatively conservative nation nestled in the center of the European Union (EU), yet it is not part of that common European economic and political community. Famous for the precision of its watches and trains, the purity of its chocolate, and the beauty of its snow-covered Alps, Switzerland has few natural resources. Yet the nation boasts a highly educated and technically trained workforce, with more than its share of Nobel laureates per capita. Switzerland is also home to many multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including Novartis, Roche, and Syngenta. Syngenta is one of the world's primary suppliers of genetically modified seed.

Despite signs that on the surface seemed to portend fertile ground for biotechnology to take root, beginning in 1992, Swiss anti-biotechnology activists began planning to put forth what was termed the Genschutz-Initiative, or Gene Protection Initiative. The final form of this wide-sweeping initiative proposed to forbid “the generation, purchase, or distribution of transgenic animals; the release of genetically altered organisms into the environment; and the patenting of transgenic animals and plants, of their components, and of the relevant processes.” Moreover, imbedded in the initiative was a clause requiring that “experiments with all genetically modified organisms require proof of benefit and safety, proof of the lack of alternatives, and a statement of ethical responsibility.”
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 10, 2008

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