First step towards a normalisation of relations with the EU

Since 13 September the autumn session is in full swing. Over the course of three weeks, the National Council and the Council of States will deal with issues that are equally important for the ETH Domain, such as the release of the cohesion billion to selected EU states or the Gene Technology Act.
Only in the winter session of the Parliament will the National Council decide on the cohesion billion for the European Union. (©Swiss Parliament)

The Federal Council has concluded negotiations on the institutional framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU at the end of May 2021. In order to relations with the EU return to normal, it wants to release the second Swiss contribution to selected EU member states, the so-called cohesion billion, as soon as possible. Parliament will not, however, adopt this second cohesion contribution in the autumn session as had been hoped. The Council of States (first chamber) will deal with the bill at the end of the autumn session. This means that the National Council will not be able to discuss the matter until the winter session. The ERI stakeholders have great interest in normalising relations between Switzerland and the EU as quickly as possible, since Switzerland is no longer part of the important EU research programme "Horizon Europe" since mid-2021 due to the failing of the Framework Agreement.

Gene Technology Act: Extension of the moratorium for another four years

Switzerland had a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified organisms in agriculture since 2005. The moratorium was introduced as a result of the popular initiative "for food from GM-free agriculture", which was adopted at the time. Parliament has so far extended the moratorium three times. The Federal Council now wants to extend it for another four years (until the end of 2025). The moratorium also affects products from new genetic engineering processes. The National Council will discuss the matter on 23 September.

Other topics: Advising the Federal Council on crises and China

On 27 September, the Council of States will discuss a proposal by Erich Ettlin (Die Mitte/OW). According to the motion, the Federal Council should be able to set up committees that bring in expertise and specialist knowledge lacking in the administration. These bodies should be subject to commission secrecy and communicate according to a predefined communication concept. The motion states that "self-constituting, one-sided and political committees should be avoided". It thus more or less explicitly speaks out against bodies such as the current Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force.

Relations with China are again a topic in parliament. The Foreign Policy Committee of the Council of States would like to see improved coordination of China activities (including science) and a strengthening of the knowledge of China in Switzerland. To this end, it proposes an institutionalised exchange between all relevant actors. The Council of States will deal with the proposal on 30 September.

Gene Technology Law: Position of the ETH Board – Questions to Michael Hengartner, President of the ETH Board

What is the ETH Board's position on the extension of the moratorium?

The moratorium is detrimental to Switzerland as a place for research and innovation. Where the use of GMOs is banned, there are hardly any new start-ups, and the lack of career prospects discourages young talent.

From a scientific point of view, there is no reason to extend the moratorium either. After decades of research, there is a broad scientific consensus that genetically modified plants do not pose a health risk. Since the new CRISPR/Cas9-based methods introduce mutations that can also occur naturally, they are even less open to discussion than older methods. These GM plants should not be covered by the Gene Technology Act at all. We recommend that the federal government reconsider this point.

On the other hand, we must take note of the fact that a large part of the Swiss population is still sceptical about green genetic engineering. It would be a mistake to ignore this fact. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shown us how important it is not to take decisions without the consent of the citizens. Lifting the moratorium at this stage would probably only deepen the differences and thus jeopardise the long-term success of these future technologies. In this respect, science must remain in dialogue with society.

In the spirit of "a good result tomorrow is better than a partially satisfactory result today", the ETH Board supports the extension of the moratorium. However, it links it to the demand that in the next four years there should be a much more intensive discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of this technology, as well as pragmatic solutions to the question of the co-existence of transgenic and non-transgenic plants.

Why doesn't the ETH Board come out more clearly in favour of research and disagree with the extension of the moratorium?

Green genetic engineering is a wonderful tool that can help us protect our native plant species from global warming, improve yields and avoid pesticides. However, without social acceptance, Switzerland cannot reap these benefits. That is why it is imperative that the next four years be used to intensify the social debate on new genetic engineering methods and their potential for sustainable agriculture.