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Switzerland does not need a new cultivation battle

Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, more “self-sufficiency” and “food sovereignty” have been demanded. It’s mostly about disguised homeland security. A different strategy is needed to ensure a secure food supply.

In 1942, men harvest potatoes on the square in front of the opera house in Zurich that were planted there as part of the Swiss cultivation battle during the Second World War.

Photopress/Keystone

Have you noticed that frozen organic French fries have not been available in Swiss supermarkets for a few months? And that Switzerland’s most popular crisps brand has recently no longer only listed local farmers as suppliers on its packs, but also German and French potato producers?

Both are due to the poor potato harvest in 2021. Because of the miserable weather, local farmers harvested up to 50 percent fewer potatoes than in normal years.

When the harvest is bad, imports are made

If Switzerland were a self-sufficient country, this would have had serious consequences. The missing organic French fries are a hint for this. Nevertheless, the Swiss can nibble their beloved paprika chips with an aperitif and buy potatoes in the supermarket as usual this year. Because the federal authorities have without further ado allowed more potatoes to be imported from abroad.

The example shows that self-sufficiency is such a thing. The Swiss agricultural policy basically claims that the local fields must produce enough potatoes to feed the population. It supports the farmers with extensive direct payments and protects them from foreign competition with high tariffs.

But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, self-sufficiency is exposed as a nice-weather concept. Then there is nothing left but to lower the customs barriers and buy potatoes from abroad.

Spirit of the Cultivation Battle

In the collective perception, such connections are often suppressed. The spirit of the cultivation battle from the Second World War seems to live on in the minds of the Swiss: it is the idea that the country can and should provide itself with food.

This idea can still be used in politics. When the Ukraine war broke out and the population began to worry about food safety, it wasn’t long before the farmers’ association and the SVP came up with demands. It was said that the degree of self-sufficiency had to be increased now. You have to increase agricultural production and lower environmental standards.

But self-sufficiency is not just a myth. It is also expensive and has little to do with actual security of supply.

Misleading level of self-sufficiency

This is reflected, for example, in the so-called degree of self-sufficiency. Farmers’ representatives like to refer to this measure. It suggests that that Switzerland can currently provide 60 percent of its own food. Milk is even produced in abundance in this country. When it comes to meat, the self-sufficiency rate is a good 80 percent.

On closer inspection, however, the degree of self-sufficiency is a theoretical construct. It measures how many calories Swiss farmers produce in normal times. But it says nothing about what domestic agriculture could produce in a crisis situation in which it would have to operate completely independently.

Agriculture depends on foreign countries

It is one of the open secrets of Swiss agriculture that it is heavily dependent on other countries. The local farmers, for example, need a lot of feed grain for their cows, pigs and chickens. Half of this comes from abroad, because so much could never be produced on the limited arable land in little Switzerland. If you take this connection into account, the calculated degree of self-sufficiency already falls to 50 percent.

However, there are other dependencies. From the first day of the year, Swiss farmers are dependent on artificial fertilizers from abroad, without which intensive farming is essential. The seeds for many plants have to be imported. And essential fuels such as diesel also come from abroad. One can imagine how the degree of self-sufficiency shrinks when such dependencies are taken into account. Only nobody has officially calculated it yet.

The situation is paradoxical: if Swiss farmers were to increase the degree of self-sufficiency, as the term is currently used, agriculture would become more dependent on other countries. This is because the majority of farmers are still engaged in intensive farming. With an expansion of production, they needed more animal feed, artificial fertilizers and seeds from abroad. That would have little to do with self-sufficiency.

What self-sufficiency would mean

However, a thought experiment is instructive. What if Switzerland actually had to feed itself self-sufficiently? A few years ago, the Agroscope research institute calculated such a scenario: Switzerland could no longer import any food and would have to produce all the calories itself. It could also no longer import animal feed, but it would still be possible to import fertilizer and seeds.

Even in this only partially self-sufficient scenario, the consequences would be serious. The survival of the population could be secured with a “second cultivation battle”. But a meager menu would end up on the plate: mainly bread, potatoes and vegetables. On the other hand, there was almost no pork and chicken and almost no eggs, there was only little cheese, beef and milk and rarely fruit. It would be the end of intensive livestock farming, which characterizes large parts of Swiss agriculture.

Expensive domestic production

Another problem with the idea of ​​self-sufficiency is that it comes at a high price. The Swiss population pays a lot to be supplied, at least in part, with local products. State contributions to agriculture amount to over 4 billion Swiss francs per year. Border protection drives up the prices that consumers pay for groceries in stores by an estimated 3 billion francs. You would have to calculate that as well the numerous environmental damages caused by agriculture, which run into billions.

Of course, agriculture also brings something, namely the production value of food or the care of the landscape as a service to the general public. But overall, farming costs the population more than it brings them. Given the current structure of agriculture, an increase in production would probably mean that the balance would deteriorate further.

Homeland Security in disguise

The call for “more self-sufficiency” is also often an argument put forward. Anyone who calls for it – or, more modernly, calls for “more food sovereignty” – usually means something else: more home protection for Swiss farmers. But don’t let that fool you. If something is produced domestically, that does not mean that the supply is secure. This is shown by the numerous poor harvests of potatoes in recent years.

What Switzerland therefore needs is not self-sufficiency, but a strategy for security of supply. Food should always be available in sufficient quantities – regardless of whether it is produced domestically or abroad.

A strategy for security of supply

What could such a strategy for security of supply look like? A first pillar would be an agriculture that takes into account the ecology and the limited natural resources of the country. It remains important that food is produced in this country. But this must not be accompanied by major damage to the environment and nature.

This is also an imperative of economic reason: in the long term, food can only be produced in Switzerland if the quality of the soil is preserved, the water bodies are protected and biodiversity is not destroyed. A strong incentive for this could be created by consistently aligning the billions in state direct payments to farmers with what they do to preserve ecosystems.

Diversification instead of loneliness

Second, one should not focus on domestic production. On the contrary: You should rely on a wide selection of sources and keep the borders open. It’s a bit like the Corona crisis, when the idea that masks had to be produced domestically failed with a bang. With a strategy of diversification, the risks can be controlled better – if only because crop yields fluctuate, as with potatoes.

Thirdly, Switzerland already has compulsory stocks to prevent short-term supply bottlenecks. And fourth, Switzerland should become a laboratory for new technologies. There are a large number of promising approaches in the agricultural sector as to how enough food can be produced ecologically in a limited space. Switzerland could benefit from this.

So what Switzerland needs is a forward-looking strategy. On the other hand, the call for self-sufficiency and sealed borders stands for thinking about the past. Switzerland cannot secure its food supply with “old” agriculture today – and it will not work in the future either.

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