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Agroscope

Protected Site: Seven Years of Field Research with Genetically Modified Plants

A secured field on Agroscope’s Reckenholz site enables field research with genetically modified (GM) plants. In addition to research results, it provides findings on how GM plants might be handled in agriculture, as well as offering the public a window into this research.

Back in the early 1990s, Agroscope conducted the first field trials with genetically modified potatoes at its Changins site. In the years that followed, however, genetic engineering became an increasingly controversial subject in Switzerland. In 2005, the Swiss electorate approved a five-year moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) plants, which nevertheless explicitly allowed for field research. The moratorium was extended three times, and lasts until the end of 2021. A proposed further extension by four years is currently in the consultation phase.

Vandalism necessitates costly security measures

Shortly after adoption of the moratorium, in 2005 the Swiss Federal Council commissioned a national research programme for exploring the benefits and risks of GM plants (NRP 59; www.nfp59.ch). Already in 2008, in the first year of the project, a majority of the plots of a field trial with GM wheat at Agroscope’s Reckenholz site were damaged by vandals.

A core recommendation of the NRP 59 was that field trials with GM plants were important for Switzerland as a research centre, and that the high costs of their protection should no longer be paid for out of research funds. In 2013, therefore, the setting-up and operation of a Protected Site at Agroscope Reckenholz (ZH) was included in the Dispatch on the Promotion of Education, Research and Innovation. The fenced field has been in operation since March 2014.

Apple trees and field crops researched

The Protected Site is approx. 3 ha in size. Between 2017 and 2020 four projects ran on it simultaneously. Most of the trials dealt/deal with an investigation of the disease resistance of plants (Fig. 1). In addition to apple trees, the field crops winter and spring wheat, potatoes, maize and barley have been the subject of research.

Fig. 1 | Field trial with GM potatoes on the Protected Site. To the right of centre of the photo, the variety ‘Atlantic’ with two resistance genes from wild potatoes; to the left, the same variety without resistance genes, heavily infested with leaf blight. (Photo: Agroscope, Brunner S.)

Challenges in field trials with GM plants

Agroscope operates the Protected Site, ensures basic agricultural support as well as the implementation of biosafety measures, and is actively involved in communication. It supports researchers in the complex preparation of a release application. The approval procedure at the Federal Office for the Environment takes at least six months. If there are objections, it can take significantly longer. Further complications in comparison with field trials without GM plants are the constraints minimising the likelihood of the accidental release of GM plants outside of the experimental field.  

Moratorium and new breeding techniques

In the next few years, field research with GM plants will be influenced by whether and how the moratorium on cultivation, which runs out at the end of 2021, is extended. Although field research remains a possibility in the event of an extension, applied research would be less worthwhile owing to a lack of prospects.

Plant research and breeding is currently unimaginable without the new genome-editing techniques (e.g. CRISPR-Cas), in which specific sections of the genome can be selectively altered. Internationally, at least 140 market-oriented crops are currently being developed by means of genome editing. In Switzerland, all genome-edited organisms are at present subject to the Swiss Gene Technology Law, with both the national and international scientific community being in favour of differentiation. Consequently, genome-edited plants will also be researched on the Protected Site in the near future.

Conclusions

  • Since 2014, six multiyear field trials with genetically modified crops have been/are being conducted on the Protected Site.
  • With the Protected Site, Agroscope undertakes the protection of the trials and assists researchers with communication and the implementation of biosafety requirements.
  • The trials not only provide a better understanding of the wide variety of interactions between crops and their environment, but also highlight options for Swiss agriculture and furnish experience in the enforcement of legal requirements and the implementation of the mandated biosafety measures.
  • In future, trials with plants modified by means of the new breeding techniques will also be conducted on the Protected Site.

Scientific article

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