Heinz Bonfadelli, Urs Dahinden, Martina Leonarz, Michael Schanne, Colette
Final Version of November 28, 2000
Biotechnology in Switzerland – From Street Demonstrations to
Biotechnology has recently been the subject of intensive debates in Switzerland for some years
now. An important reason for this is the special Swiss system of direct democracy. Therefore,
the second section of this chapter gives some background information on the Swiss political
system in general and more specific information about the recent policy debate on
biotechnology in this country. In the third section we highlight the media coverage of this
debate. The following sections discuss public perceptions of biotechnology, based on the
findings from surveys (section 4) and focus groups (section 5).
2. Swiss policy on biotechnology
The extent and form of Swiss public debates on biotechnology have been greatly influenced by
the Swiss system of direct democracy, which allows citizens to launch a campaign to collect
signatures for a so-called "initiative" at the federal level. Provided they manage to gather the
necessary number of signatures (150,000 within a specified time), any group of citizens may
submit an initiative. It then has to be debated by the national parliament and the government,
who can support or reject the initiative or write a counterproposal with similar, but typically less
radical, aims. A national referendum on the initiative has to take place within five years of its
submission. If there is a counterproposal, both suggestions have to be voted on.
2.1. The history of Swiss public policy on biotechnology
First phase – beginnings of the debate (1984 – 1987)
There was almost no political or public debate on biotechnology during the seventies and the
eighties in Switzerland. During this first phase, the federal government had no intention of
creating a specific, superimposed law on biotechnology. This ended in 1987 with the
submission of the so-called “Beobachter Initiative” to restrict the abuse of reproductive
medicine and gene technology in humans (accepted in 1992 as Art. 24 novies of the national
constitution with 74% voting in favour). This first bit of legislation in this field was motivated by a
growing awareness of the lack of regulation in biotechnology, particularly as applied to humans.
Second phase – controversial debate (1987 – 1998)
The second phase triggered by the submission of the “Beobachter Initiative” continued up to
June 7 1998, when the Swiss electorate rejected the second so-called “Gene Protection
Initiative” (German "Genschutz-Initiative"). Originally submitted in 1992, the initiative was
intended to protect living beings and the environment from genetic manipulation but 66% of
those who voted were against it. By October 25 1993 the committee for the initiative had
gathered the necessary number of signatures. The text of the initiative called for the prohibition
of the following three things:
1) the production and sales of genetically modified (GM) animals
2) the release of GM plants and animals
3) the issues of patents on GM plants and animals.
This phase was accompanied by an increasingly controversial public debate that forced the
government to change its original laissez-faire approach and to accept at least a certain amount
of regulatory policy.
Third phase – the "Gene Lex Package" (since 1998)
In the third policy phase after the rejection of the “Gene Protection Initiative”, the policy process
has focused on the development of the so-called "Gene Lex Package", dealing with non-human
In the following section, we will give a more detailed description of the key policy events in the
period from 1997 to 1999. The policy debate before this period has been described in an earlier
publication (see Bonfadelli, 1999).
2.2. Focus on the developments 1997 - 1999
Strategies of government before the vote on the “Gene Protection Initiative” (June 1998)
The main biotechnology policy event in the period from 1997 to 1999 was the referendum on
the “Gene Protection Initiative”, which took place on June 7, 1998. Most other events in this
area were more or less closely related to this referendum.
The year 1997 was characterized by the Swiss parliament's attempts to develop an indirect
counterproposal to the “Gene Protection Initiative”. Swiss industrialists and government
decided to follow the strategy of not formulating a direct counterproposal to oppose the “Gene
Protection Initiative, but rather planning and running a propaganda campaign for the "Gene Lex
Package". On March 4, 1997 the parliament issued a first draft of the “gene law”, with the
additional legislation known as the "Gene Lex Package". Public opinion polls showed that the
„Gene Protection Initiative“ had a realistic chance of being supported by a majority in the
population. The pro gene lobbyists in parliament got together to draft a “gene law” to address
the problem of regulating those areas of gene technology not already covered by existing Swiss
legislation. Since the gene law was not developed as a direct counterproposal to the “Gene
Protection Initiative”, the Swiss will not be able to vote on it.
In December of the same year, the federal government produced a second draft of a “gene law"
in record time. The speed with which the government worked was interpreted as an expression
of its willingness to take the concerns of the Swiss population seriously into account and to
develop strict regulations for gene technology.
The Swiss Ethics Committee on Non-human Gene Technology
The federal government became particularly active shortly before the vote on the “Gene
Protection Initiative”: The Federal Council set up a "Swiss Ethics Committee on Non-human
Gene Technology" (ECNH) on April 27 1998, an expert committee with the task to advise the
authorities in the field of non-human biotechnology and gene technology. The Federal Council
was in charge of selecting both the members and the chair of the committee. The size of the
committee was limited to 12 persons from outside the government, with half of them
This rather last minute step to set up a committee (2 months before the referendum) was
criticised as a tactical move by the federal government to take the wind out of the sails of the
critics of gene technology.
2.3 Scientists on the streets protesting against the “Gene Protection Initiative"
In a unique event the like of which had never happened before, several hundreds of genetic
researchers and sympathisers gathered on April 28 1998 to march in a demonstration against
the „Gene Protection Initiative“. The event was labelled as the “demonstration of the
professors”, received high media attention, but was also criticised as public relations happening
only. From then on, this date has been known as the „Day of genetic research“ and was
celebrated again in the years 1999 and 2000.
In October 1998, after the vote on the Initiative, an association "Science et Cité" (French for:
“Science and Society”) was founded by a group of major scientific institutions. Its goal was the
promotion of the dialogue between scientist and the public. According to its statute, the
association should not take sides in controversial issues but should rather promote the quality
of the exchange. Although its foundation had no direct links with the issue of gene technology,
the referendum on the “Gene Protection Initiative” had often been referred to as justifying the
need for such an institution.
The vote on the “Gene Protection Initiative" on June 7 1998
The long-awaited vote on the Initiative took place after a very intensive press and advertising
campaign. Because the biotechnology industry and researchers in Switzerland believed their
very existence was threatened, an unusually intense voting campaign was carried out. The
anti-gene-technology movement also had considerable financial means at its disposal. To the
surprise of most political observers, the initiative was rejected by a large majority of Swiss
voters (66.6 %), although as usual the turnout was low: Only 40.6 % of those entitled to vote
"Gene Lex Package"
After the vote the government took its time to get on with the work on the "Gene Lex Package".
On January 19, 2000 it published a new draft of a „gene law”, to be debated in parliament in fall
2000 . The „gene law“ is not a single, independent law, but rather a package of additions to
various other laws, mainly within the environmental law, but also to others concerning
agriculture, animal protection etc.. Issues addressed in the draft are the protection of humans
and the environment, ethical responsibilities and informing the public. The draft does not ban
completely nor put a stop for a limited period of time (moratorium) to the release of GM crops.
However, it insists on strict monitoring and restrictions. Furthermore, it is not the farmer who
can be held liable for damages arising from GM crops within 30 years but rather the producer of
GM seed material.
The law is in many points comparable to European Union regulations but more restrictive on
1) The notion of the “inherent dignity of living being” has to be respected
2) Releases and trade of genetically modified organisms (GMO) can be prohibited where this is
in the “dominant public interest".
The draft of the "Gene Lex Package" has been supported by most organisations, including the
pharmaceutical industry and farmers, but criticised by some branches of the agricultural
industry and by environmental organisations.
Destroying GMO fields
In 1999, 200 hectares of fields on which maize was grown had to be destroyed officially due to
traces of GMO in the seeds. The federal government had issued a directive, in which a
benchmark for non-GMO seeds is defined: They may contain up to a maximum of 0.5% GMO.
There has been considerable public discussion about this benchmark. In the same time
(mid-1999) a governmental body (Federal Council for Science) held a citizen consensus
conference – called Publiforum – on “Genetic Engineering and Food”. One of its aims was to try
to overcome the gulf that had grown between hardened fronts. However, the Publiforum
recommended in a close vote (a majority but not a unanimous decision) having a moratorium on
GM crops. This radical recommendation has led some politicians and scientists to question the
methodology of consensus conference.
On July 1 1999, a federal directive on what can be labelled as GM-free food (it must contain
less than 1% of GM organisms) came into force. The directive was well-received, partly
because it could be applied in practice.
2.4. Recent developments in the year 2000
Study of WWF Switzerland
On May 9 2000 WWF Switzerland published a study of economic impacts of GM crops which
created a certain stir. The study came to the conclusion that GM crops cannot benefit
economically Swiss farmers. Gensuisse, a lobbying organisation of the pharmaceutical
industry, criticised the methodology of the study. It backed up its criticisms by referring to
another study by the ETH (Federal Institute of Technology) that came to the opposite
International symposium on gene technology
On June 13 2000, the Ministry of Environment launched an "International Symposium on
Gene Technology". The plan was to hold four workshops per year. Jeremy Rifkin, an American
opponent of gene technology, was invited to the first workshop. This invitation was heavily
criticised by the pro gene technology lobby, including the Nobel prize winner Prof. Rolf
Zinkernagel. The first workshop of the symposium was so controversial that the federal
government withdrew as the main sponsor.
Call for a Moratorium
In November 2000, various environmental, consumer and farmer's organisations took up the
call for a moratorium on applying gene technology. This latest development has to be seen
against the background of the recent BSE-scandals (mad cow disease) that is perceived as a
negative example of how far it can get if not sufficient emphasis is put on risk prevention in food
Table 1 Key Policy Events for Gene Technology in Switzerland (1996 - 2000)
Date Trigger Event
March 4, First draft of “Gene Survey results showed that the Since the gene law was
1997 Law” (Gene Lex) „Gene Protection Initiative“ had a not developed as a direct
by Swiss realistic chance of being counterproposal to the
parliament Gene supported by a majority of the “Gene Protection
Protection population. In reaction to that Initiative”, the population
Initiative” finding, pro gene lobbyists in the will not be able to vote
parliament draft a “Gene Law” about it.
April 17, Foundation of the The federal government selectsThe foundation of this
1998 national ethic members for the national ethiccommittee only two
committee for committee for months
non-human before the
non-human referendum on the „Gene
applications of gene technology.
applications of Protection Initiative” is
gene technology criticised as an obvious
PR event organised to
calm down critics of gene
June 7, National After a very intensive press and The initiative is rejected
1998 referendum on the advertising campaign, the with a 67% majority .
“Gene Protection referendum on the "Gene
Initiative” Protection Initiative" takes place.
May 7 Official destruction Due to traces of GMO in the The federal government
1999 of GMO-corn fields seeds, 200 hectares of maize writes a directive defining
fields had to be destroyed. a benchmark for
non-GMO seeds that may
contain up to 0.5% GMO.
July 1, Directive for A federal directive stating what The directive is well
1999 benchmark of can be labelled as GM-free food received because it can
GMO-free food (less than 1% of GM organisms) be used in practice.
comes into force.
January New draft of gene The federal government The draft is supported by
19, 2000 law publishes a new draft of a „Gene most organisations
Law”, to be debated in parliament including the
in autumn 2000 . The „Gene Law“ pharmaceutical industry
is not a one single law , but a and farmers, but criticised
package of additions to various by the agricultural
other laws, mainly to industry and
environmental law, but also to environmental
others (agricultural, animal organisations.
Issues addressed in the draft are
the protection of humans and the
responsibilities and informing the
public. The draft does not ban
either temporarily (moratorium) or
permanently the release of GM
crops. However, it specifies strict
monitoring . Furthermore, not the
farmer but the producer of GM
crops is held liable for 30 years.
The law is in many points
comparable to the European
Union regulations but more
restrictive with regard to two
points: 1) The notion of the
“inherent dignity of living being”
that has to be respected
2) Releases and trade of GMO
can be prohibited in clear cases of
“dominant public interests”
3. Media coverage in Switzerland: 1997 to 1999
3.1. Preliminary remarks
The Swiss sample from 1997 to 1999 consists of articles from two qualitative newspapers: The
“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” (NZZ) is an elite, liberal daily newspaper with an opinion leading
function (readership: 8.4%) and the “Tages-Anzeiger” is a politically independent daily with
great impact in the greater Zürich region (readership: 14%). For the sampling procedure,
artificial weeks were created with 42 issues per year. A full-text search (keywords: gentech* /
biotech* / Klonen / Dolly / transgen* / Genschutz*) generated a sample of 347 articles in total
(188 for the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” / 159 for the “Tages-Anzeiger”). It has only been possible to
search the NZZ electronically for the past few years, so the absolute number of articles on
biotechnology found are restricted to a comparatively short time period (3 years). However, an
amazing total of 1170 articles were produced in just three years (412 in 1997, 406 in 1998 and
352 in 1999).
Both the intensity graph and the table with the past two phases are given for the “Neue Zürcher
Zeitung” only to ensure continuity with the previous analysis. A direct comparison could then be
guaranteed. The third graph is based on the full sample from the two newspapers.
During the period from 1997 to 1999, 139 articles of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” had their main
focus on biotechnology (74%); while a minority of 49 articles mention biotech in passing or
Neither TV- / radio-program-guides mentioning the topic were counted, nor any markings on
the front page or the first page of a section referring to an article within the same newspaper
issue. Letters to the editor are counted according to the keywords, i.e. letters with the keyword
„Dolly“ are counted as one entity per issue, no matter how many letters there were.
3.2. Biotechnology – high impact on the media agenda: intensity graph
The popular “Gene Protection Initiative” which wanted to restrict gene technology in the
extra-human domain led to many articles being published between 1997 and 1999. There was
a significant increase in the number of articles after 1996, with a peak in 1998 partly because
the Initiative was then put to the vote. Since June 1998 the number of articles found in the
newspaper has remained high, but the slight decrease is indicative of a certain fatigue after a
long and heated debate in the media and in the public arena. All told, biotechnology, or to be
more specific, certain fields of biotechnology have been subject matter to intensive discussion
in Swiss political institutions and the Swiss media. In order to vote on the initiative the public
needed information about it, and parties to the debate needed media channels to spread their
opinions. This explains the increase over the past few years in the number of articles in the
media on biotechnology together with a considerable public awareness of issues involved. It is
no longer just the political aspects that have put biotechnology high on the media agenda, but
also economic and scientific concerns.
Figure 1 gives an overview of the production of all the articles (in percent) in the past 20 years 2.
Excluding articles which mentioned biotechnology in passing or just metaphorically (7
Figure 1: Intensity graph showing the proportion of articles on biotechnology published in the
NZZ from 1979 to 1999 (100%=n=388 articles)
"Neue Zürcher Zeitung": articles in % per year
% 10 8
5.5 5.5 5.5
2 2 2.5
0.57 0.75 0.5 0.75 0.5
79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99
3.3. Reporting on biotechnology: 1988 to 1996 and 1996 to 1999: political
debates in the front
The media debate before 1988 has been described in an earlier publication (Bonfadelli, 1999).
The Media coverage was split up in three phases according to the pattern of reporting: 1972 to
1988, where scientific pattern prevailed, 1988 to 1996 where we can state a clear shift to
political reporting, and 1996 to 1999 with an emphasized political point of view. In this section,
we will concentrate on the past two phases.
Phases II and III do not differ a great deal with regards to the themes, actors and frames. This
reflects a focus on political reporting during the period due to the two popular initiatives in 1992
and 1998. Differences in the themes correspond with the different focuses of the two initiatives.
In 1992 biomedical and regulatory themes were the topics most often counted in the media
coverage, which reflected what people had to decide on in the poll, where the Initiative had to
do with such things as childbearing and reproduction technologies, and other fields affecting
the human domain. Phase III included a slightly wider variety of themes, which ties in with the
broader discussion among the public. The themes did not just concern the topic of the 1998
Initiative, which mostly included non-human issues, but also other aspects of biotechnology.
This appears to correlate with the increasing importance of biotechnology for society as a
whole. New topics, like cloning and genetically modified food, were becoming more feasible
and thus scored high in terms of the number of articles written on these issues. The frame
“public accountability” increased its topicality by 10% from phase II to phase III. By phase III,
public opinion had also become more important.
These findings suggest there is a widespread need to discuss questions about who should be
responsible for what in biotechnology and how the field should be regulated. These questions
are no longer seen as issues for politicians and professionals alone. There has been a decline
in the number of articles which neither mention risks nor benefits. This indicates that the media
is concerned with pondering the pros and cons of biotechnology and that actors are tending to
take a clear stand for or against the technology or to favour or disapprove of special fields of
application. The variables that link the actors involved with particular benefits or risks are worth
examining. Scientists seem to take the strongest stands on both fronts and are accordingly
viewed as either scapegoat or trustworthy experts who can bring salvation tackling e.g.
incurable diseases, famines in the Third world, environmental pollution and social inequity.
Figure 2: Phase II and phase III: an overview
II: 1988 – 1996 III:1997 – 1999
political debate 1 political debate 2
Frequency (%) 39% 45%
Frames (%) Accountability 25 Accountability 35
Progress 22 Progress 21
Ethical 10 Economic 12
Economic 10 Pandora’s box 10
Themes6 (%) Biomedical 19 Agri-food 21
Regulation 19 Regulation 17
Gen. Research 18 Biomedical 13
Agri-food 16 Public opinion 13
Public opinion 7 Genetic research 10
Economics 7 Economics 7
Genetic identity 7 Genetic identity 7
Moral 6 Cloning 7
Actors7 (%) Science 34 Science 43
Politics 26 Politics 22
Business 17 Business 18
Interest groups 13 Interest groups 8
Media 6 Media 6
Benefit/Risk (%) Neither 37 Neither 28
Benefit only 26 Both 25
Risk only 23 Risk only 25
Both 14 Benefit only 22
Responsible Actor – Science 61
Benefit (valid %) Business 26
Responsible Actor – Science 46
Risk (%) Business 28
Interest groups 5
Addressee of –
Eva-luation (% – Independent
direction of evaluation: Science
mean) 40,6% (n = 84); mean:
3,74 (n = 84)
23,2% (n = 48); mean:
3,79 (n = 48)
Author of demand (%) – Politics 29
Percentage of corpus in the period 1973-1999; total n = 391. Articles which mention
biotechnology only metaphorically (only covered in 1997-1999, n = 7), were excluded from the
Bold indicates highest frequency within phase.
Italics indicates highest frequency within category.
Multiple response for three themes.
Multiple response for two actors in Phases ll.
Interest group 14
Addr. of demand (%) – Business 26
3.4. Letters to the editor: clear positions and powerful votes
Letters to the editor can be seen as textual sources full of rich (moral and ethical)
argumentation. They reflect how the public understand and view a particular issue. In addition,
they provide access to opinions outside of the domain of professional journalists and experts.
Letters to the editor are neither representative nor unfiltered pieces of information. Each letter
has to fulfil the criteria set by the editorial department and will not be printed if it does not appeal
to the editor or fails to fit in because of its content and/or length or redundancy. In the worst case
of editorial manipulation, a newspaper may use the choice of the letters they print to represent
their own views on a specific issue. Furthermore some people regularly write letters and
therefore have a greater chance of spreading their opinions. Others never write and they may
only express their views in interpersonal exchange. Some organizations and lobby groups use
the letters to the editor as a platform for reaching a large number of readers and thus gain a
large audience for airing their interests.
The high proportion of letters to the editor found in the sample provides an opportunity to look a
bit closer at their specific modes of argumentation.
We found 72 letters referring to biotechnology in our sample from the “Tages-Anzeiger” and
NZZ newspaper during the years 1997 to 1999. Most of the letters were written prior to the vote
on the “Gen Protection Initiative”, which means there was a clear peak of production shortly
before the vote in June 1998. An analysis of the letters shows a wide range of views on the
technology and the initiative. Most writers showed their colours clearly: 47% evaluated
biotechnology negatively, and 31% evaluate positively. 15% of the letters mentioned neither
benefits nor risks and only 7% presented both sides of the coin. This finding suggests that either
most people who wrote letters to the editor have a clear position for or against the technology or
that letters with non-ambiguous content have the grater chance of getting published.
Another feature of the letters is that they often referred to individuals. The letter writers
appeared to have no reservations about declaring their disapproval, in particular, scientists
clearly. The latter and representatives of research institutes and universities were more
frequently singled but for criticism, followed by NGO’s, industry and politicians. Scientists, on
the other hand, were also sometimes praised by the writers of the letters to the editor, and
occasionally NGO’s received good marks.
The letter writers in favour of biotechnology tended to see its benefits lying in the area of health,
economics and research. Those against the new technology envisaged it entailing dangers for
the environment, consumers, health and social inequality, and tended to support their position
with moral arguments.
Figure 3: Letters to the editor: most important features in %
Themes (n=204= 100%) Regulation 24
Public opinion 10
Generic research 9
Bio medical 8
Actors (n=72) Science 42
Interest groups 22
Frames (n=72) Accountability 45
Pandora’s box 13
Benefit / risk (n=72) Benefit only 47
Risk only 31
benefits (n=72) No benefits mentioned 60
Risks (n=72) No risks mentioned 44
Social inequality 6
Writers evaluate negatively Science 15
Interest groups 13
Writers evaluate positively Science 10
Interest group 5
4. Public perceptions: survey results
4.1. Decreasing exposure to media coverage and selective media influence
The first Eurobarometer survey in Switzerland was carried out between the end of May and the
beginning of June 1997, almost one year before the very controversial “gene protection”
referendum and about three months after the big media event “Dolly” happened. The second
Eurobarometer survey took place in Summer 2000, about two years after the Swiss population
rejected the “Gene Protection Initiative" with a 66.6% majority As a consequence, the first
survey showed a situation where public discussion of biotechnology was becoming more and
more intense and controversial, whereas the second survey took place during a fundamentally
different phase. In 2000 there was not much public debate about biotechnology and there were
no referendums on the agenda. Thus there was less media coverage of the issues and
decreased involvement by the Swiss public.
This is reflected in the results of the survey. Almost 80% of the Swiss citizens surveyed in the
first Eurobarometer in 1997 had heard something in the media about biotechnology. In
comparison only 53% in the other European countries had come across discussions on
biotechnology in the media at the same time. In Spring 2000, less than 60% of the Swiss
surveyed answered the same question with “yes”. A similar pattern was found in the percentage
of people, following the media reports about biotechnology often or even always: It dropped
from 27% in 1997 to 19% in 2000.
Correspondingly, the proportion of those not interested in the media coverage of biotechnology
increased from 29% in 1997 to 36% in 2000. .
Table 4 a) Did the coverage of biotechnology in the media influence your attitude to
biotechnology? b) And if yes: In what direction?
yes no don't total in favour of against
All respondents (N = 1010) 43 47 10 100 17 26
Segments with positive 52 41 7 100 40 12
Attitudes Towards ambivalen 41 53 6 100 17 24
negative 48 44 8 100 4 44
Table 4 shows that 43% of the Swiss respondents in 2000 felt they had been influenced by the
media coverage of biotechnology. Of those 26% had become more critical of biotechnology and
17% had developed more positive attitudes towards it. But this media effect is mediated
strongly by each individual's own original attitude towards biotechnology: 40% of those in
favour of biotechnology report the media had influenced them to view biotechnology even more
favourably whereas 44% of those originally opposed to biotechnology shifted towards viewing it
even more negatively. Thus both groups seemed to view the media to reinforce their attitudes.
These findings tie in one conclusion from research on media effects that different people use
the same media content very selectively to support the existing attitudes in this case towards
biotechnology. Such predispositions function as frames that guide how people process of new
media contents and the arguments presented for or against biotechnology.
4.2. Increased expectations of biotechnology, but still only moderate support
In Switzerland, expectations about what biotechnology could offer society were quite low in
1997, comparable to those of some other European countries like Germany or Austria. Only
37% thought that biotechnology would improve our way of life in the next twenty years. In
comparison, almost a third of the respondents expected biotechnology to have negative effects.
In the following three years, the Swiss increased their expectations of the benefits of
biotechnology about 20% to 59% (see table 5). In the year 2000, there are few countries where
people have such positive expectations but findings were similar in Sweden, Holland and the
UK. For Switzerland, this clear shift in attitudes towards biotechnology seems to be largely a
result of the long-term and well-funded campaign against the “gene protection” referendum by
the pharmaceutical industry, which strongly emphasised the positive potential of modern
biotechnology for medical applications in the future.
The two Eurobarometer surveys also detected a shift in the acceptance of biotechnology at the
level of attitudes during the last three years, but the effect is small, involving only 10%. The
segment of the population holding positive attitudes towards biotechnology rose from only 19%
in 1997 to 30% in 2000, but even today, those people against biotechnology (41%) outnumber
those with positive attitudes towards it (30%). Acceptance of biotechnology in Switzerland is
significantly higher among younger people (Part. Corr.: -0.16); in comparison to that, gender
and level of education have not been found to be linked significantly to the level of acceptance.
Nevertheless, there was a trend up until 1997 for biotechnology to be accepted more by men
and better-educated respondents than by women and people with lower educational
backgrounds. Furthermore, biotechnology tends to be strongly supported by people holding
positive attitudes towards technology in general (Part. Corr.: +0.40), but to be rejected by those
who are concerned about ecological issues (Part. Corr.: -0.09).
If one compares these two dimensions – expectations, on the one hand, and acceptance on the
other hand – it looks as if the expectations-question triggers pictures that associate
biotechnology above all with health and medical applications. In contrast, the question
concerning people's personal attitudes towards biotechnology still seems to affect cognitions
concerning risk and moral judgements about which they feel much more ambivalent
Table 5 a) Expectations of biotechnology, and b) Personal attitudes towards biotechnology
Expectations: Will biotechnology improve our way of life in the next 20 years?
Percentages improve no Effect worse don't don't improve no Effect worse
Switzerland 37 11 32 20 14 59 12 15
Europe 46 9 20 25 26 41 10 23
Acceptance: What is your personal attitude towards Biotechnology? (10-point Scale for or against)
Percentages posi- ambi- ne- Mean Mean posi- ambi- ne-
tive valent gative tive valent gative
Switzerland 19 34 47 4.5 5.0 30 29 41
Attitude Scale: 1 – 10 points; negative: 1 – 4; ambivalent: 5 – 6, positive: 7 – 10.
4.3. Qualitative and quantitative shifts in knowledge
The above-mentioned increase in positive expectations about biotechnology can also be
related to which applications of biotechnology respondents in Switzerland reported knowing
about. About 60% said they knew that biotechnology can be used in food production, 55% that
it is used to make medicines or vaccines and 55% knew about genetic testing. The figures for
the other European countries were: 73% for food applications, 50% for medicines and vaccines
and 59% for genetic testing. Although there is considerable awareness of a few specific
applications of biotechnology, the general knowledge level appears to be quite low. On
average, only half of the population gave correct answers to the ten textbook-type knowledge
questions used in the Eurobarometer survey. For example, only 35% of the respondents in the
European countries knew the right answer to the false statement that ordinary tomatoes do not
contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do. In Switzerland at least 43% marked this
statement correctly as false.
Lack of information is not only evident in an objective sense, but Swiss also feel it in a more
subjective way: 75% rejected the statement “I feel sufficiently informed about biotechnology”.
Interestingly there was no significant change in the mean knowledge score between the two
surveys at the European level (roughly 50%), but in Switzerland respondents demonstrated a
decrease in knowledge, getting an average of 62% of the ten knowledge questions right in
1997, but only 53% in 2000. This shift can be interpreted as assimilation to the European level.
According to the so-called knowledge gap hypothesis, conflict about a topic in a society leads to
a more intensive information flow which in turn has positive effects insofar as people are more
motivated to seek new information. As a consequence, existing knowledge gaps between
different social groups with different educational backgrounds will decrease as a function of the
more homogeneous information flow. But if one compares the two partial correlations between
knowledge and education (controlled for region, sex, age, political interest and attitudes
towards ecology and technology) they were with +0.22 (sig. < 0.01) about the same for both
points in time. But there is evidence of an increasing knowledge gap when one looks at the
agenda-knowledge, for example: Do people remember biotechnology as a recent media topic?
In the year 2000, only 47% of those with little education claimed to remember it in comparison
with 71% of those with higher education who showed this type of agenda-knowledge. The
comparable values in 1997 were 70% for the lower and 89% for the higher educated
respondents. Thus, the knowledge-gap, measured as a difference in knowledge between those
with less and those with more education, increased slightly from 19% to 24% as a result of a
decreasing level of conflict about biotechnology in the public arena.
4.4 Usefulness, perceived risks and moral evaluation of specific applications
In the first Eurobarometer survey, seven specific applications had to be evaluated by the
respondents. Four of these applications – 1) gene food, 2) genetically modified crop plants, 3)
medicines & vaccines and 4) genetic testing – remained the same in both surveys. In 2000
respondents were also asked about three newer applications, namely 5) cloning human cells
and tissues, 6) cloning animals, and 7) developing genetically modified bacteria. For all
applications, respondents had to evaluate a) the usefulness, b) the risk for society, c) whether it
is morally acceptable and d) whether it should be encouraged.
To sum up from their responses, it appears that people made distinctions between the different
applications of biotechnology and the evaluations differed therefore widely according to the
type of application considered. This result corresponds with the findings of the first
Eurobarometer survey. Medical applications like genetic testing, genetically produced
medicines or vaccines and also the development of genetically modified bacteria to clean up
slicks of oil or dangerous chemicals are considered by the majority of respondents as useful as
involving little risk and as morally acceptable and even desirable. In contrast, genetically
modified crop plants like GM maize, gene food or the cloning of animals tend to be evaluated
negatively: Swiss citizens do not expect clear benefits from these applications, the risks
involved seem to be quite high and many do not consider these applications to be morally
acceptable. As a consequence, the majority believes that these applications should not be
Gene food and GM crops tend to be evaluated more negatively in Switzerland than in the other
European countries. But interestingly, the negative evaluation of gene food in Switzerland has
diminished slightly over the past three years and come closer to the European average. A
reverse trend can be observed concerning GMO crops: Here the evaluations have become
more negative during the last three years. In Switzerland GM food is considered as more risky
application as in the other European countries, whereas genetic testing seems to be viewed the
The production of gene food tends to be rejected strongly by a majority of Swiss consumers.
More than half of the respondents think that the production of GM food is totally unnecessary.
For two-thirds GM food is seen as fundamentally unnatural, as a threat to the natural order of
things. Every second respondent claimed to dread the idea of GM food. Only 27% agreed
somewhat or even strongly with the statement that the risks from GM food are acceptable. As a
consequence, 57% would pay more for non-GM food and 67% would refuse genetically
modified fruits, even if they tasted better.
4.5 Performance of different social groups in the field of biotechnology
How do Swiss respondents view the different people and groups involved in discussions about
modern biotechnology? Do they think that these groups are doing a good job for society? – In
general, most of these groups get quite a good rating. 70% of the respondents in Switzerland
think that the consumer organisations which monitor the products of biotechnology, the medical
doctors who keep an eye on its health implications, and the environmental groups campaigning
against biotechnology are doing a good job for society. Similarly about 60% evaluated
positively groups like the media for their reporting on biotechnology, farmers for deciding which
types of crop to grow, shops for making sure our food is safe and ethics committees for handling
the moral aspects raised by the new technology. In comparison to these quite optimistic
evaluations only about 45% of the respondents think, that “the government bodies trying to
regulate biotechnology” or “the branches of industry developing new biotechnological products”
are doing a good job. The church received the worst assessment for how they gave their points
of view about biotechnology, with only 34% commending them.
4.6 Increased expectations, but acceptance of biotechnology remains
In 1997, future-oriented expectations of biotechnology were polarised and significantly more
negative in Switzerland than in the other European countries. Now, three years later and after a
very heated, costly but in the long-run successful campaign against the “gene protection”
referendum by the biotechnology industry, the majority (59%) of Swiss respondents to the
second Eurobarometer survey claim to believe that biotechnology will improve the way of life in
the next twenty years, and only 15% believe it “will make things worse”. Although people's
personal acceptance of biotechnology has also increased by 10%, even today, the opponents
of biotechnology in Switzerland outnumber its supporters by a margin of 40% to 30%.
5. Public perceptions: focus group findings
5.1. Studying focus groups as a further source of data
In addition to the survey, we ran focus groups in order to get a more in-depth view of the
attitudes widespread among the Swiss and the type of arguments they used to justify them.
The four focus groups had a total of 29 participants (6-8 per group). Participants were recruited
by phone from a random sample of households and selected according to the following quotas:
Sex, age, education and attitudes towards biotechnology (supporters, opponents and mid
positions). The discussion was led by a moderator and covered the same areas as the survey.
For each biotechnological applications, participants were asked whether they have heard about
it, its advantages and disadvantages and whether would personally be willing to buy or use the
specific application. An extended description of the methodology and the findings from all the
participating countries is given in the chapter on "Public concerns" in this book. In this section,
we will present only a few, but typical results from Switzerland in the form of quotes from the
5.2. Biotechnology: Ambivalent evaluations prevail
Biotechnology has polarised Swiss public opinion in the past. This conflict has given rise to the
impression that there are only pure supporters or opponents of this technology. However, the
reality is more complex and Swiss attitudes tend to be much more diverse and ambivalent. The
Swiss population tends to distinguish clearly between the various applications of biotechnology.
5.3. Negative attitudes towards agricultural and food applications
Applications of biotechnology in the agricultural and food domain were predominantly rejected.
This attitude was not justified with the specific risks of biotechnology, but rather with a general
rejection of industrial agriculture. The following quote illustrates this view:
Ms. Meierhofer* I'm convinced that nature is absolutely perfect. I don't like it
when men think they can make it more perfect, I'm scared
by this development.
In addition to this "leave nature alone" argumentation, some focus group participants also took
a more pragmatic stand, saying that genetically modified food currently offered no advantages
with regard to either quality nor quantity.
The hope that global hunger problems could be solved by means of biotechnology was
mentioned several times, but not evaluated as very realistic because participants thought that
farmers would become increasingly dependent on seed producing companies.
5.4. Ambivalence or support in the medical realm
The attitudes in the medical realm were less clear-cut and rather more ambivalent. What was
strongly rejected were genetically modified animals for medical experiments in laboratories.
Genetic testing of adults, to yield diagnostic information was viewed quite favourably, but such
tests were only considered as beneficial as part of the treatment of the specific disease. Just
knowing one had an inherited tendency with a certain probability of developing an illness
without having a means of treating it was considered to be rather unhelpful and abstract
Several focus group participants were able to talk about their own experiences with
biotechnology (gene tests) or transplantation. Their personal experiences added another more
personal quality to the focus group exchange, which was often on a rather general and political
level. The discussions showed a consensus in the groups that individual health was so
important that there should be no restrictions (e.g. forbidding the use of biotechnology in
medical research) that might limit treatment possibilities. Any moral or ethical dilemma should
be addressed at the individual level of the persons concerned, but not at a general political
level. The following quote illustrates this view:
Mr. Mueller* If you need it, you would be willing to apply any technology
that is currently available. But if you don't need it, you are
rather sceptical and you might say no, and prevent
progress in developing other possibilities. I consider this
5.5. Concerns about biotechnology: moral rather than technical arguments
Rejection of biotechnology was rarely justified with arguments referring to specific biological or
technical risks. Rather, objections tended to be based on moral or ethical concerns. These
ethical arguments were not related to strictly religious values, but beliefs about nature and
about how the natural world should be respected. The following quote illustrates this view:
Ms. Arter* We don't have sufficient evidence, and that creates fears,
for you, for your children and grandchildren and for the
environment. For me it means a big ethical intrusion into
God’s creation. I'm not a believer at all, but that’s my view.
And one could say with Goethe: I can’t get rid of the ghosts
that I called upon.
While the technical risks of biotechnology were not a dominant issue, the risks to society were
addressed quite often. Genetic tests gave rise to concerns about the privacy of that information.
Genetically modified crops were discussed with respect to their economic impact on the
farmers, and the possibility that they would make farmers increasingly dependent on seed
5.6. Conclusion: Labile public opinion
In comparison with other countries, biotechnology has been debated in Switzerland very
intensively in public. Two popular initiatives and the referendums (1992, 1998) on
biotechnology are probably the main reasons for this public interest. One would expect, as a
result of these intensive debates, that the process of individual opinion formation would be
highly advanced and that attitudes would be rather stable. However, our findings from both, the
surveys and the focus groups suggest that contrary is the case, that public opinion is rather
The following quote, an answer to the question about who can be trusted to tell the truth about
biotechnology, illustrates the prevailing uncertainty and lability:
Ms. Leutenegger* Nowhere is it written very clearly, what it actually is. You
don't know whether you can believe or not. It is not
Mr. Wehrli* Yes, indeed, there is a lack of orientation (...). And this
ambivalence makes me uncertain. Therefore, when I think
about biotechnology, I'm always thinking about uncertainty.
There are several sources of this uncertainty. One is the very complexity of the technology
itself, while another is the ongoing dynamics of biotechnology with new technological
developments raising new and challenging questions for society.
* The names of the focus group participants were changed in order to guarantee anonymity.
6. Summary and conclusion
Compared with other European countries the public debate on biotechnology in Switzerland
has been relatively intense. However, after the two referenda in 1992 and 1998, the debate has
since slowed down to some extent: There has been less coverage of the issue in the media and
as a result of that, people now have less knowledge about both the facts (text book knowledge)
and the opinions (biotechnology as a media issue).
Currently, the public debate in Switzerland is no longer characterized by street demonstrations,
but rather by legal and technical discussions typically taking place in regulatory and
administrative offices. This relative calm could be interpreted as meaning that the issue of
biotechnology has lost its potential for stimulating public debate. The future is, of course,
uncertain, but we are not convinced that the public debate on biotechnology has come to an
end in Switzerland, rather it is likely to gain new momentum and continue to arouse strong
feelings among the Swiss public.
Bonfadelli, Heinz (Hrsg.) (1999). Gentechnologie im Spannungsfeld von Politik, Medien und
Öffentlichkeit. Zürich: Institut für Publizistikwissenschaft und Medienforschung der
Heinz Bonfadelli: Professor in the Dept. of Communication, University of Zurich, Switzerland.
Research areas: uses and effects of mass media, risk communication, mass media and
Bonfadelli, Heinz: „Risikoberichterstattung – Risikoperzeption“. In: unimagazin. Die Zeitschrift
der Universität Zürich, 2/2000, pp. 37-40;
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Urs Dahinden: Lecturer and researcher at the Dept. of Communication, University of Zurich,
Switzerland. His research interest include science and risk communication, public
participation procedures and the Internet.
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Concern in Europe. Proceedings of the International Transdisciplinarity 2000
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participatory integrated assessment. - Experiences gathered in the ULYSSES
project and recommendations for further steps. ULYSSES working paper
WP-99-2 Darmstadt, 1999. Download at:
Martina Leonarz: Studied cultural anthropology, film theory and communication science at the
University of Zurich. She works at the Department of Communication, University of Zuerich.
Fields of interests are media contents, risk communication and gender studies.
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Gesundheitsbereich. Zur Evaluation von Suchtkampagnen. In: Röttger, Ulrike
(Hg.): PR-Kampagnen. Über die Inszenierung von Öffentlichkeit. Opladen (2.
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Michael Schanne: head of a privately owned office for applied social research. His research
interests include scientific journalism and risk communication.
Schanne, Michael (1999): Foerderprogramm Wissenschaftsjournalismus. Evaluation.
Einzelstudien 1 - 5, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Stuttgart. (Five evaluation studies.
Programme for the advancement of science journalism. Robert Bosch foundation)
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Nicht jedes Risiko wird zum Thema. risk vox - Stimmen im Risiko-Dialog, hrsg. von
der Stiftung Risiko-Dialog St. Gallen
Colette Schneider: MA student at the Department of Communication, University of Zurich. Her
MA thesis is focusing on the media coverage of biotechnology in Switzerland.