Approaching genetically modified crops

What exactly are genetically modified plants? How do lawmakers define such organisms? What are the consequences of using GMOs in Swiss agriculture? And in what ways can GMOs contribute to global food security?

Illustration: Nora Gamper

Interdisciplinary workshop to find a common understanding

07.11.2015 - 08.11.2015

The genetic engineering of plants remains a perpetual topic in political debate. The proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture perceive it to be a powerful tool through which to increase incomes and pursue more sustainable methods in modern farming. Critics warn against the ecological, societal, and economical impacts of GMOs.

But the question remains, what exactly are genetically modified plants? How do lawmakers define such organisms? What are the consequences of using GMOs in Swiss agriculture? And in what ways can GMOs contribute to global food security?

The two day seminar aims to provide an overview on the complexities of the topic of genetic engineering – from biological, judicial, and socio-economic perspectives. The participants will be split into four working groups addressing different aspects of genetic engineering, in developing solutions for existing problems in working with GMOs. At the end of the workshop each group will give a presentation informing the other groups about their work.

The four working groups are:

G1: Biology vs. Law

There are currently two approaches to the genetic engineering of plants that primarily differ on the extent of human influence. Genetic engineering laws define GMOs based on the ability to differentiate them in comparison to plants genetically modified through conventional breeding techniques. The laws regulate and navigate judicial barriers brought on by the Swiss moratorium on genetic engineering. Scientific and technological developments however suggest that this legislation is inadequate. How should lawmakers account for these changes in the playing fields? Is it even possible to achieve a distinct judicial and biological difference from “genetically engineered” and “conventional” plants?

G2: Ecological consequences of GM plants

From an agronomic and ecological point of view the topic will be discussed concerning the importance and chances as well as the problems and impacts of genetically modified plants on the ecology. Which types of GM-plants are meaningful, how do we navigate potential risks and what are the differences between developing and industrial countries?

G3: Socio-economic consequences of GM plants

Will GM-Plants result in cheaper or increased food prices, are they the solution for world hunger and can developing countries increase the income through GM-plants? The role of multinational agro-corporations will be looked at and the economic consequences caused by consumer awareness.

G4: Public awareness and perception of GMOs

The genetic engineering of plants appears as being unnatural interference in nature even if the scientific community concludes that there are no more risks brought on by GMOs as there are in conventional breeding methods. This attitude is not present in medicinal genetic engineering, which is accepted with little to no criticism by much of society. Why does genetic engineering of targeted food products face such challenges and what distinguishes it from genetic engineering in medicine? What explains the discrepancy between scientific knowledge of genetic engineering and public awareness or are the public fears justified?

Please indicate the first and second priority you would like to engage in and briefly explain why.


Organization: Monika Wehrli, Member of the Swiss Study Foundation and member of the board of reatch, the think-tank for technology and research in Switzerland (

Location: Jugendherberge Solothurn

Number of participants: 20 students from different disciplines

– Prof. em. Klaus Ammann, University of Bern
– Prof. Urs Niggli, Director Research Institute of Organic Agriculture

Working language: English

Preparation: Readers from the four working groups will be sent in advance.

We would like to thank the  Swiss Study Foundation for collaborating with us to organise this workshop


Schweizerische Studienstiftung



Monika Wehrli (reatch & Studienstiftung)

Servan Grüninger (reatch)


Marius Rohner (reatch)

Luisa Schäfer (reatch)