BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The Swiss Parliament voted June 12 to reject any moratorium on genetically modified crops and the European biotechnology industry immediately welcomed the decision. However, that same week other countries to the south of the Alps were strengthening their anti-GM controls.

The vote in the Swiss Lower House was close, voting 77-70 to reject a moratorium similar to that in force in the European Union, which is currently under challenge by the U.S. The decision reflected an about-turn by the Lower House to support the Upper House, which voted against any moratorium, 29-6, the week before. In May, the Swiss Lower House originally had voted in favor of a moratorium, 83-78, but the Swiss parliamentary procedure, which requires a search for consensus before decisions can become law, meant a second vote had to be taken.

"We applaud this decision, which is a positive political move in Europe," said Simon Barber, director of the plant biotechnology unit at the European biotech association, EuropaBio. "At long last, we are beginning to see encouraging signals to support this important technology."

However, further south, in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, a joint GM-free statement was signed on June 10 by the presidents of organic farmers associations from five different regions in the Alpine countries. The statement is intended to be the starting spot for the establishment of a transnational zone free from GMOs, running across the Alps and down to the Adriatic coast. The plan is supported by the agricultural ministers from several regions and is intended to cover the whole of Slovenia, the Austrian provinces of Carinthia and Styria and the Italian provinces of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Slovenia's agriculture minister Frank But said: "Personally, I am very much in favor of establishing the GM-free region within the EU. I know that there are some obstacles at the EU level to achieve this, but I believe that such options should be possible and I hope and believe that we will use this opportunity and turn it into reality."

"Organic farming in Austria is already a very important agricultural practice and its potential to grow is big," said Stefan Merkac, a representative from Bio-ERNTE Austria, the environmentalist organisation that took the initiative for the bioregion. "We want to preserve and extend this potential also to future EU member states and to ensure farmers in the newly established bioregion to be able to farm in an environmentally and ethically acceptable manner and to provide consumers healthy, locally and sustainably produced food."

The creation of the bioregion dedicated to growing organic crops is a response to the possible commercial reintroduction of GM crops in the European Union.

Meanwhile, an Italian Euro-MP, Roberta Angelilli, asked the European Commission what it is doing to regulate the social, economic, political and ethical implications of the use of GMOs. She asked for the European Union's position on defending the characteristics of traditional farming systems against the assault of GM crops, and what instruments are in place in the EU "to safeguard the health of consumers in relation to the use of GMOs in foodstuffs?"

She said the growing use of transgenic organisms in food products and animal feed is causing considerable confusion in terms of the safety and health of consumers. She said the patenting of genetic inventions "is motivated by the profit seeking of an oligopoly of private firms," and might have a significant impact on the agri-foodstuffs industry in general and the farming system of less-developed areas in particular.

"It therefore seems evident that it is essential to make sure that the use of GMOs in farming and foodstuffs does not compromise the survival of traditional forms of farming and to protect consumers and the right of farmers to continue in business," she said.