City targets cows

Animal husbandry and the city’s climate goals are difficult to reconcile – find the Greens and SP. Visit to one of Zurich’s last farmers.

The farmers are skeptical because the cow cannot do anything about her flatulence.

Gaëtan Bally / Keystone

No Swiss city is as urban as Zurich, but there are farmers here too. You can count yourself lucky, because the city is considered a reliable lessor. The downside is that they have to live with the political whims of their landlord. Most of the time this risk is small. But now the farmers in the city of Zurich have been targeted by the red-green politicians.

The farmers should become climate-neutral. It’s easy to guess what this is aimed at: whatever grows in the meadows and fields on the outskirts of the city should be as plant-based as possible.

At the beginning of the year, the Greens and SP brought a corresponding initiative through the city parliament. Today’s SP city councilor Simone Brander helped draft it as a member of parliament, and it is now being implemented in her own department. In mid-November, the city rounded up all tenants of urban land to announce the roadmap towards climate neutrality.

Do the farmers have to fear for their animals?

In any case, the plans are met with skepticism by Zurich farmers. Anyone can write a postulate, a farmer told the Tamedia newspapers about the plans when they first became known in the spring. But the implementation in everyday life is “a completely different number”.

It’s November and the animals are still out on the pasture

Visit to Jürg Obrist, one of the thirteen tenants of a municipal company, the Döltschihof. The hairy animals he keeps fart and belch like ruminants do. In doing so, they emit methane, a gas that is significantly more harmful to the climate than CO2 is.

Obrist’s Galloway cattle are a familiar sight for walkers on the Üetliberg. The animals often graze on the meadow between the Triemli city hospital and the luxury hotel Five, formerly known as «Atlantis».

Obrist has nothing against the net zero goal, as he says in the interview – on the contrary. “We farmers feel climate change very clearly,” he says. The fact that his animals are out on the pasture at all at this time of year is extraordinary, even his personal record. Just three decades ago, the animals had to go to the barn by the end of October at the latest. In summer, the animals suffered from the heat.

But the conversion of a farm is complicated. The farmer Obrist has replaced his petrol-powered brush cutter with an electric one, and the motor mower will soon be running on electricity instead of petrol. But that doesn’t really matter. Because the CO2-Emissions from farm machinery and the like account for only 10 to 15 percent of the total footprint of a typical farm.

At 30 to 40 percent, the emission of nitrous oxide in connection with the storage and application of fertilizers is more important. 40 to 45 percent is methane that escapes from the cows’ digestive tract.

On the other hand, one or the other herb has certainly grown. If the animals are allowed to eat thorn clover, for example, methane gas emissions drop. But you can’t stop the cow from farting and belching.

It is therefore foreseeable that animal husbandry and the goal of net zero are difficult to reconcile. Most of the leasehold farms in Zurich combine animal husbandry with arable farming.

After all: In the balance sheet of a farm there are also climate-friendly items. A farm not only emits greenhouse gases, it also binds CO2. This is stored in the grasslands and trees on the land. It’s called carbon sinking. This compensates for part of the methane emissions from the cows. Therefore, a small herd on a large pasture can definitely be climate-neutral.

A reduction in the herds is therefore more likely than a total cow ban on Zurich soil. Grün Stadt Zürich calculated this for Obrist’s company. He would have to halve his herd from 30 to 15 animals. And plant a few more trees.

The 60-year-old colonel says that that would not be a problem for him personally – he will be giving up the farm lease in five years anyway due to his age. “But if I were a young farmer who had to support a family, I would probably see it differently.” In fact, Obrist thinks it would be advisable to adapt the federal government’s system of direct payments to climate protection measures. But currently this is not the case.

How is a farmer supposed to shoulder a 50 percent drop in sales? The city of Zurich does not yet have a conclusive answer to this.

What to do with the grass when the cows are gone?

Marcel Lusti is six years younger than Obrist and also builds on the slopes of the Albis chain. His farm is a few kilometers further south, it is the Leimbihof above Leimbach. Lusti keeps 45 cows, 20 cattle and 1000 chickens, produces milk and meat and sells a large part of its products directly from the farm.

Lusti is concerned about the city’s plans. Not just because of business issues. He says: “You can’t repurpose agricultural land at will.” Because of the nature of the soil and the topography, the only option on his land is the production of grass. “But what are you going to do with the grass if the animals won’t eat it?” Simply leaving the pastures wasted is not an option, if only because it would harm biodiversity. Mowing the grass and selling it outside the city is conceivable, but makes little sense. Because then grass would simply be fed to cows outside the city. Of course it could be processed into biogas.

For Lusti, the question also arises as to how sensible it is to focus on urban farmers. Almost all of them are organic farms. This means that 95 percent of the animals live on the grass that grows on the outskirts of Zurich. Not a kilo of soya is imported for these animals, says the Leimbi tenant.

Research is also concerned with the question of whether cattle farming on grassland should be restricted for climate reasons. Knut Schmidtke is Professor of Organic Farming and Director for Research, Extension and Innovation at the Research Institute for Organic Farming in Frick in the canton of Aargau. Schmidtke says that for some farmers it is quite realistic to switch from animal to plant-based products. It takes a lot of time and work to establish the new value chains.

However, Schmidtke does not recommend such a transformation for farms on classic grassland. Especially not when they are organic farms and the animals feed on the locally available pastureland.

Because Schmidtke sees the fundamental problem in that part of livestock farming that depends on the feeding of corn or soy on a large scale – problematic especially when the feed is not cultivated sustainably. In his view, global animal husbandry should be based on the grassland areas that are already naturally available for these animals.

For consumers, this would not mean abstinence, but a significant reduction in meat consumption. Schmidtke emphasizes that he thinks the path of bans is wrong, it has to be about social change. For example, it is gratifying that the demand for vegan products such as soy or oat milk is increasing.

The fact is, however, that per capita meat consumption in Switzerland is increasing and not decreasing. And that the organic portion of the meat remains just under 6 percent.

For this reason, Ferdi Hodel considers the approach of the city of Zurich to decarbonize agriculture locally to be wrong. The market mechanisms cannot be switched off in this way. Hodel is the managing director of the Zurich Farmers’ Association. He says: “The decision to eat sustainably is made by the consumer at the counter, not by the farmer. If he wants to eat meat, he will.” In the worst case, he buys more foreign meat.

It is therefore completely wrong to reduce the supply of local organic meat. “Actually, the city should even strive to keep more animals on its organic farms.” Many of Zurich’s farmers sold animal products in their farm shops. “If they were no longer allowed to keep animals, they would probably have to buy these products from the region or take them off the shelves entirely.” The city is otherwise always striving to increase the regional share, for example when shopping for canteens or hospitals. He is the contact person for the city on these issues.

Hodel also points out that farms have mostly optimized their form of management over the years – adapted to the conditions, including the topography. It depends on whether a farmer keeps cows or farms. He can’t imagine that small interventions can make a big difference here.

Matthias Probst disagrees. Probst is a green municipal councillor, an environmental scientist by profession and co-creator of the initiative for climate-neutral agriculture. He says: “If you sacrosanctly put the consumer decision above everything else, you can’t do anything.” But he never spoke of banning livestock farming. It can hardly be the only solution to reduce the herds.

Probst sees many approaches: replacing cows with other livestock, growing soybeans instead of animal husbandry, solar systems on orchards to provide shade. It is also important to question whether you have to produce on every slope. These approaches have to be checked, and therefore an interpretation is needed. This should show whether and how the goal of net zero in agriculture can be achieved.

Probst says: “We need agriculture that can produce without destroying the planet. The city, as one of the largest owners of agricultural land, needs to think about it.” The city of Zurich can serve as an innovation laboratory. Because here the population is ready to wear new models and, if necessary, to talk money to support the farmers in the changeover.

The city is currently examining this with great seriousness. Results are not yet available. In its climate strategy for agriculture announced for the end of 2023, the city council wants to show how urban farms could achieve the climate target, what role the use of grassland by ruminants should play in the future and whether animal stocks have to be reduced. According to Grün Stadt Zürich, no decisions have yet been made.

But the new doctrine is already being applied: when the Huebhof farm in Schwamendingen was leased out in January 2023, according to Grün Stadt Zürich, an operating concept was selected that relies on “agroecological and climate-friendly” agriculture, with a focus on vegetables and fruit and a small number of animals.

The Zurich farmers can hope that they can hold on to at least some of their animals. How much is achieved if the herds were ever reduced by a few animals remains open. On request, Grün Stadt Zürich does not provide an estimate of the savings effect on greenhouse gases: In this regard, they are still in the analysis phase.

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