She chops onions, carrots and potatoes, adds them to the sizzling oil in the frying pan. The oil isn’t from genetically modified (GM) canola, and never will be if Monika Wanner, a Swiss farmwoman, has her way. “We have good products in Switzerland,” she says. “We don’t need GMOs.” That growing GMOs is banned in Switzerland tells her they must not be safe. She grows a big garden so she knows what’s in her food. Her shopping list follows the principal: whenever possible regional and seasonal.
When we farmed in Canada, at Westlock, Alta., I never had to defend myself for growing GM canola. Everyone grows it there. Ninety per cent of Canada’s canola is genetically modified. There might be the odd discussion where someone wonders if it really is safe or they don’t like the reliance on mega companies like Monsanto. But I think twice before I tell my Swiss friends that we grew GM canola. Most of them feel like Monika.
I know why Canadian farmers grow GM canola. Conventional canola was a good cash crop, but it messed up fields. The herbicides available missed some weeds, giving them a happy year to multiply. GM canola cleans up a field, instead of contaminating it. And it does it with greater yields. For the farmer it is a win/win situation. Sure, the Technology Use Agreements (TUAs) are a pain, but farmers still come out ahead. Unless farmers have ideological reasons, it’s a no-brainer.
GM canola also seems to make environmental sense. Roundup doesn’t leave residues in the soil like some other herbicides. Bayer’s Liberty Link canola gives producers another option to break up herbicide groups and lower the danger of resistance to glyphosates.
GMO canola oil is perfectly safe, claims the Canadian Canola Council. Their website assures consumers, “The canola plant has been modified, not the oil. So canola oil from the herbicide tolerant plant is exactly the same safe and healthy oil as canola oil from conventional plants. The modification has been made to only one canola gene and it is a protein. Processing removes all proteins from canola oil. That means canola oil made from GM seed is conventional canola oil.”
Monsanto’s website says: “Governmental regulatory agencies, scientific organizations and leading health associations worldwide agree that food grown from GM crops is safe to eat. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, among others that have examined the evidence, all come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is safe to eat and no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques (i.e. plant breeding).”
So if GM crops are supposed to be so safe, why are European consumers so set against them?
Elisabeth is an informed consumer and thinks carefully about what she buys for her family. She would never knowingly purchase a GM product. We don’t know enough about its safety, she says. She worries about biodiversity; that in time there will only be a small amount of varieties grown, leaving us more vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Where is the gene pool, she asks? Elisabeth also doesn’t like the heavy dependence on a very few big corporations like Monsanto. “They’ll dictate everything,” she says. She understands the dilemma though, of decreasing our environmental footprint in a way that still allows the farmer to make a profit.
GM products aren’t necessary to combat world hunger, says Rahel Brütsch, president of the Schaffhauser Farmwomen. Most GM products are produced for ethanol production anyway, she thinks. Swiss farmers are only paid subsidies if they plant at least four different crops. That assures a good rotation and keeps biodiversity. Like Elisabeth, she worries about unforeseen consequences and resistance issues. She too says, “We don’t need GM products.”
Barbara Eisl is a board member of Konsumenten Forum, the oldest Swiss forum to protect the interests of the consumer. “The Swiss consumer is fundamentally critical towards genetically modified products,” she says. For most, it’s more of a subliminal fear, than founded on facts. They want safe food and are prepared to pay more for it. Switzerland has some of the most stringent food production regulations in place (and consequently some of the highest farm subsidies). Food produced in Switzerland is seen to be safer than imported food, even from the EU. Like Monika, many consumers look for regional and seasonal products; preferably organic ones. Even discounter stores like Lidl and Aldi have a good selection of organic products now.
Switzerland may be a bit different, Eisl thinks, than some of the EU. Farms are small and rural areas are the playground of the urban population — they hike and bike past their food. The close proximity of producer and consumer means there is more interaction. Consumers see farmers spraying their fields and want to know why and if that is safe. Environmental lobbies such as Green Peace and animal rights groups are very active. The farm lobby is forced into action. It’s not about knowledge so much as about emotion, Eisl thinks. “The world around us feels unsafe, so let’s at least eat safe food.”
Dr. Michael Winzeler is manager of the Protected Site, where Swiss research on GM products is carried out. The two main projects are fungicide-resistant potatoes and apples. Switzerland has a moratorium on producing GMOs until 2017 and it is expected that it will be extended another five years. In a November 2015 article in the UFA Revue, Winzeler discusses GM acceptance with organic farmer Markus Bopp. “Even if science could prove beyond a doubt that GM products are absolutely safe, that doesn’t mean the consumer would buy them,” Winzeler is quoted, adding that studies have shown that more knowledge doesn’t automatically bring a change of purchasing habits. “The Americans have more faith in technology and don’t ask as many questions,” Winzeler believes. “Europeans are much more critical.”
Interestingly, although Bopp is an organic farmer, he isn’t against GMOs per se. “GMO isn’t the devil,” the Revue quotes him,” but neither should it be seen as the answer to all our problems.” He sees the potential benefit of using considerable less fungicides and insecticides, which would be more environmentally sustainable. “When it only takes three fungicide applications instead of 15, I would be interested in GM potatoes too,” he says in the Revue article.
Felix Ruh is a farmer and crop protection consultant in Switzerland. When he first heard of GMOs he was quite excited. Now he is more wary. This last spring glyphosates came close to being banned for Swiss farmers. Already the large department stores have taken glyphosates out of their garden supplies. There are media stories of glyphosate poisoning. Monsanto can claim it is perfectly safe, but Ruh is no more convinced than most Europeans. As a plant protection consultant he is concerned about weed resistance. “How are we going to control those?” he asks. He also doesn’t like the heavy dependence on one or two mega corporations like Monsanto.
The pressure of the Swiss consumer is huge, Ruh says. If something happens, it’s the farmer that will take the blame. At this point farmers believe the cons outweigh the pros. They don’t want to jeopardize their reputation for producing safe food. Being GM free is part of that reputation. As Bopp says in the Revue article, “For the Swiss farmer to accept GMO products there would have to be a very significant bonus. That isn’t the case at this point.”
Not at this point, but most scientists, many farmers and even some consumers believe that it is inevitable that GM products will be grown and sold in Switzerland at some point. I’ve seen the big swing from conventional to organic food in the grocery stores in the last 10 years. Maybe in 20 years there will be as many GM products on the shelf. But it’s going to take a while to change the mind of the Swiss and European consumer. In Europe, the consumer really is King.