By GEIR MOULSON
.c The Associated Press
GENEVA (AP) - Switzerland, the pure Alpine wonderland, is pitted against
Switzerland, the high-tech research lab, in a referendum Sunday on whether to
ban genetically altered plants and animals.
Passions are running strong over the vote, even though Swiss tend to troop to
the polls at least three times a year to settle big national issues.
At stake could be Switzerland's position as a leader in biotechnology:
Pharmaceutical companies and the government say a ban would put a clamp on
research, sending high-paying jobs to other countries.
Environmentalists and consumer activists who support the ban are sweetening
their appeals to voters by tucking an irresistible national symbol of purity -
Swiss chocolates - into mailings.
The opposition's literature isn't nearly so enticing, but the Nobel prize
winners and researchers trying to kill the ban hope it will scare up ``No''
votes. A bald woman is shown in a hospital bed in an ad warning that the ban
could end crucial research into cures for cancer or Alzheimer's. ``Don't
strangle medical progress!'' another ad admonishes.
Opponents of the ban, who have been demonstrating by the thousands in Zurich,
Geneva and Lugano, also say it could end research into creating plants that
require less fertilizer and pesticides.
The proposal, backed by 60 consumer and environmental groups including the
World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, would ban the patenting, production, sale
and acquisition of genetically modified animals. Field tests and patenting of
genetically altered plants also would be outlawed.
The ``Yes'' campaign doesn't, of course, depend solely on bonbons.
Supporters of the ban try to frighten consumers, too, arguing that too little
is known about the consequences of letting genetically modified organisms into
the food chain.
A close vote was expected Sunday, with polls giving mixed indications of which
side was leading.
Economics Minister Pascal Couchepin has warned that approval of the ballot
initiative would cause biotechnology to ``come to a standstill here, and both
research and its industrial application will go abroad.''
Novartis and Roche, both based in Basel, rank with St. Louis-based Monsanto
Co. among world leaders in the pharmaceutical field.
Bruce Lehman, U.S. commissioner for patents and trade marks, said during a
visit to Geneva this spring that stricter Swiss laws could further benefit the
United States, where many European companies already conduct much of their
research because regulations are less strict.
Thomas Cueni, secretary-general of the pharmaceutical industry association
Interpharma, disagrees. Academic research would suffer more, he says, because
of the ban on genetically modifying animals.
``It's highly unlikely that (the initiative) will have an impact on what
companies are doing outside Switzerland,'' Cueni said Wednesday.
The ballot initiative, launched in 1993 with more than 110,000 signatories,
comes up almost six months after the government began allowing imports of a
genetically modified corn.
But Swiss regulators so far have refused to allow Swiss farmers to grow the
corn, which was developed by Novartis, saying no one knows what will happen
when the corn hits the natural world. The corn can be used in other products,
if they are labeled as genetically modified.
Many U.S. farmers already use corn, soybean and potato seeds genetically
altered to be more pest resistant. Researchers in the United States also are
looking into ways to genetically create, for example, a low-fat soybean or a
leaner cut of beef.
American entertainers and activists have, however, been urging the Agriculture
Department not to allow genetically altered foods to be labeled organic.
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