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Rubrik: Science Life

Trans-disciplinary case study from the Environmental Sciences degree programme
When the seed sprouts

Published: 15.02.2007 06:00
Modified: 15.02.2007 05:56
Given that genetically modified (GM) plants are being cultivated in the Klettgau region, how could this undertaking be monitored and what kind of problems might occur? Could GM-free forms of agriculture continue to exist? ETH Zurich students addressed these questions in a case study. Although they were necessarily compelled to work with many simplifying assumptions and their results were presented in an entertaining way in the week beginning 29 January 2007, the emotional responses already visible from the public there made one suspect that the commercial growing of genetically modified plants would cause a stir.

Christoph Meier

Does a Swiss farming operation earn more by growing genetically modified (GM) maize? This was one of the questions investigated by students in the case study “Environmental bio-safety of genetically modified plants – risk studies for co-existence concepts and opportunities of GM-free regions” organised by the Department of Environmental Sciences. Their results were presented at ETH Zurich in the week beginning 29 January 2007.

The relevant working group did not reach a definite conclusion on the initial question. However, based on their various model calculations they decided that growing genetically modified maize would probably be profitable only for rather large operations with an average field size of 3.7 hectares. Other students concentrated on how coexistence between GM maize and other maize plants could be monitored, rather than on financial problems. Based on the complex cultivation pattern, the students consider that an overarching authority to coordinate coexistence is indispensable. In Klettgau, the region specified by the case study organisers as the model area, and with the assumptions that were made, it would be possible to plant about 40 – 50 percent of the fields with GM maize, if a maximum hybridisation rate into conventional maize of 0.5 percent is accepted as a criterion

No studies of amphibians are available

Another working group concluded that it might be possible to monitor rapeseed plants which are herbicide-resistant as a result of genetic engineering. However, they drew attention to many unknown factors, for example the effect that seed in the ground, known as volunteer growth rapeseed, has on subsequent generations. The cost of the effort needed to monitor this would be considerable. Other students also addressed the problem of the impairment of biodiversity with regard to GM rapeseed. They drew attention to the lack of general toxicity studies for amphibians, which would hardly be able to escape the herbicides in the Klettgau.

The question of whether bees would be harmed by GM plants is also unclear. However other students, using a questionnaire, were able to clearly prove the sceptical attitude beekeepers have towards the cultivation of plants of this kind. There was concern in this respect about the image of honey as a natural product. However, how does the consumer view it? This question more concerned products from GM cotton, rather than anything to do with honey. Based on a questionnaire, the relevant working group in turn demonstrated that the vast majority of consumers would prefer to have freedom of choice.

Can GM maize be planted alongside other maize? Environmental Science students investigated this question in the model region of Klettgau. (Photo: GM Case Study)

That means that most consumers would welcome an obligation to declare, though a full 73 percent of them could imagine wearing the corresponding clothing. The working group concluded that the freedom of choice enshrined in the Genetic Engineering Law (GTG) also includes the non-food area, although at present there is no regulation to implement it..

Many questions not in the science area

Society’s attitude contributed to various investigations in the case study. This is because the students attempted quite deliberately to incorporate intoit both social and economic components. Overall, the case studies as well as the exercise revealed that commercial growing of genetically engineered plants already available on the market and used in the case study would cause a major debate. The conclusion based on audience testimony, some of which was emotional, was that for such an undertaking, there are still a very large number of open questions regarding political competencies, and there are gaps in knowledge. Both areas would need to be clarified; it is also clear that the undertaking would encounter significant opposition in certain circles.

Further confirmation comes from a petition submitted to the EU Commission by Greenpeace on Monday 5 February 2007. In this petition, one million EU citizens called for the labelling of meat, eggs and milk products if the animals were fed genetically modified organisms. EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou considered this to be a “strong expression of opinion”. He gave no assurance but pointed out the need to check whether this kind of labelling is scientifically justified.

(1 Case study 'Environmental bio-safety of genetically modified plants – risk studies for co-existence concepts and opportunities of GM-free regions': (

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