Popular initiative “For Food Security”

Winter session 2016

No “walls up policy”, but a commandment of the hour – not only for Switzerland

by Dr iur Marianne WŁthrich

On 29 November 2016, the Council of States reviewed the Popular initiative “For Food Security”. The initiative was submitted by the Swiss Farmers’ Union (SBV) on 8 July 2014 with nearly 150,000 valid signatures collected in only three months.1 On 9 March 2016, the National Council voted – against the proposals of the Federal Council and the National Council Committee for Economic Affairs and Taxation (CEAT-N) – to support this initiative (with 91 votes in favour, 83 against and 19 abstentions). After that, the committee of the Council of States (CEAT-S) drew up a counter draft.2 Although the objective of this was widely different from the approach of the people’s initiative, the Council of States adopted it without amendments on 29 November 2016 (with 38 ayes against 4 nays) and recommended the people’s initiative for rejection. So the bill has now been passed back to the National Council.
Food security and a high degree of self-sufficiency through family enterprises at local level are justified concerns of fundamental importance for all peoples. That is why they were anchored in the World Agricultural Report of 2008.3 Small farm structures are the best guarantors for local food security, as well as for national and regional food sovereignty, and must therefore be not only respected but also actively promoted. It must be urgently recommended to include these principles, which also apply to wealthy countries such as Switzerland, into further state-political debate.
The fact that so many Swiss people signed the initiative in such a short time should be taken heed of: a large part of the population is looking for good quality as well as local origin of its food and is also as far as possible willing to pay accordingly more. This attitude is connected to a desire to be as little dependent on foreign countries as possible. In view of the tense international situation and the fact that our spears are evidently of a differing length when we negotiate with great powers such as the EU or the USA, one cannot merely dismiss this concern of many Swiss as a wish for a Swiss “walls up policy”.

In addition to the already discussed initiative, two others were submitted, representing concerns partly of similar and partly of different kinds: “For Food Sovereignty. Agriculture concerns all of us” and “For healthy and environmentally friendly and fairly produced food” (Fair Food Initiative).4 Both will also come to the vote in the near future.

Counter draft is to handle the three people’s initiatives all in one go

Anyone who compares the counter proposal of the council of States Committee for Economic Affairs and Taxation (CEAT-S) with the initiative text will find only one content-related conformity: The Confederation is to take measures to safeguard against the loss of cultivated land (i.e. soil and land cultivated and used by agriculture). On the other hand, the main focus of the people’s initiative on Food Security, i.e. the strengthening of domestic production of foodstuffs and the highest possible level of self-sufficiency, does not appear in the counter proposal. In its report of 24 January 2015, the Federal Council even criticises the fact that “the initiative is one-sided and unbalanced because it is focused too much on domestic production.”5 Objection! The people’s initiative focuses on the point that is important to its initiators. It is precisely the purpose of the right of initiative that citizens will be able to demand that which they miss in the authorities’ policy.
The intentions of the CEAT-S counter proposal are however quite different: “The aim is to persuade the initiators to withdraw their initiative by means of a convincing formulation. […] Furthermore, according to the committee’s opinion the key of its draft bill is the support of the orientation of the Confederation’s current agricultural policy and the following up on the path chosen by its agricultural policy 2014–2017. There should be no backwards-looking or even protectionist elements [...]. In addition, the counter draft [...] should, as far as possible, include those of the concerns of the ‘Fair Food Initiative’ and the people’s initiative ‘For Food Sovereignty’ that are capable of winning a majority, so as to provide a better starting point for countering these two initiatives.”6 (Accentuations by Current Concerns)
In short, the majority of the Council of States committee have already decided in advance that they will try to do more than subjugate the current initiative: they will also try to beat off the next two initiatives – if possible all three in the same referendum.
The counter draft by parliament will allow for a postponement of the referendum on the current initiative for another year, namely until January 2018. Until then, the other two initiatives should also be ready to be put to the vote.
The Council of States approved the extension of the deadline on 29 November, the CEAT-N requested the National Council to extend the period of treatment to 8 January 2018. The Grand Chamber will presumably agree to this extension of the period on the last day of its session (15 December); there will be no discussion of this matter. On request, National Councillor Markus Ritter, member of the National Council and president of the Swiss Farmers’ Union, has disclosed that thus all options remain open to the National Council. By agreeing to the extension of the term, it consents to discuss the counter proposal, but it can then also reject this.

All three initiatives would prevent an agricultural agreement with the EU and Switzerland’s link-up to TTIP

According to the Council of States’s report, all three initiatives contain “protectionist elements”, i.e. they demand increased state interventions in the food market in favour of the maintenance and strengthening of good and sustainable domestic production and the control of food imports. These requirements, in turn, would be compatible neither with an “opening of the markets” or an agricultural agreement with the EU nor with TTIP.
Let me quote two free democratic (or shall we say, neoliberal?) voices from the Council of States debate of 29 November 20167:
Ruedi Noser, FDP Zurich: “[…] Today’s agricultural policy is luring farmers into a false sense of security. It has once more to be made clear to all farmers that the opening up of the markets will continue, that it will also be extended to other areas, and that this change cannot be stopped.” Therefore Noser calls for “an agricultural policy that promotes structural change.”
Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann: “As has been pointed out several times, the background of the commission’s concept is not only the one initiative that we have to tackle, but all three of them. They are lying ahead and they need clarification. I very much hope that the draft will be adopted, and let me say it succinctly, I also very much hope that the Farmers’ Union will in due course withdraw its initiative in response to this counter draft.
[…] With AP 2014-2017, we have defined an open agricultural policy. The initiative is in some way a response to this AP 2014-2017, and it wants to relativise this openness. That would not benefit the country. Ergo we must oppose this development. The counter draft declares for the cross-border activity expressis verbis.”
* * *
When Ruedi Noser speaks about “structural change”, he means that ultimately only large-scale farms will be able to survive (of which there are not many in Switzerland, for geographical reasons and lack of space) and that intensive agriculture should be replaced by landscape management (golf courses, nature parks). An “open agricultural policy” means being ready to conclude free trade agreements such as the EU agricultural agreement or TTIP.

Based on these facts, the following further action strategies are to be recommended:

  • The National Council and its committee (CEAT-N) should reject the CEAT-S≠ counter draft because it targets very different goals from those of the initiative.
  • The three Initiative Committees should support each other in the referendum campaign because each of their initiatives has better chances if they are mutually supportive! It would not lead to the desired result if one committee stood up against the others – in the erroneous belief that this would benefit its own initiative …
  • The Initiative Committee and the Swiss Farmers’ Union should in no case withdraw their initiative “For Food Security” in favour of a counter proposal that would not only not prevent the decline of farming but, on the contrary, even accelerate it.

    150,000 citizens have signed their initiative because they want to secure the survival of a strong Swiss production and greater independence from abroad concerning our food supplies. The Swiss Farmers’ Union has to prove itself worthy of this, the public’s great confidence in them.                 •

1    cf. Werner WŁthrich. Where will Swiss agriculture go from here? In: Current Concerns No. 14 of 30 June 2016
2    Report of the Council of States Committee for Economic Affairs and Taxation (CEAT-S) of 3 November 2016, p. 7; Cited: Report CEAT-S
3    “Ways out of the hunger crisis: the findings and consequences of the World Agriculture Report. Proposals for an agriculture of tomorrow” (reproduction of the main contents)
4    cf. Werner WŁthrich. Where will Swiss agriculture go from here? In: Current Concerns No. 14 of 30 June 2016
5    CEAT-S report, p. 4
6    CEAT-S report, p. 8/9
7    https://www.parlament.ch/en/ratsbetrieb/amtliches-bulletin/amtliches-bulletin-die-verhandlungen?SubjectId=38675

Text of the initiative:

Art. 104a (amended) Food Security

1    The Confederation shall encourage the supply of the population with foodstuffs grown by diversified and sustainable domestic sources; in particular, it shall take effective measures against the loss of productive land, including summering grazing areas, and for the implementation of a strategy of quality.
2    It shall ensure low administrative expense and adequate security of investment and legal certainty in agriculture.

Art. 197 (11)

11. Transitional provisions of Art. 104a
No later than two years after the adoption of Article 104a by the people and the cantons, the Federal Council shall request the Federal Assembly to submit the implementing legislation.
Text of the CEAT-S counter draft:

Art. 104a Food security

In order to ensure the supply of the population with food, the Confederation shall lay the foundations for:
a.    securing the basis for agricultural production, in particular the cultivated land;
b.    site-adapted and resource-efficient food production;
c.    market-oriented agriculture and food industry;
d.    cross-border trade relations which contribute to the sustainable development of the agricultural and food industry;
e.    the resource-friendly handling of food.
(Translation Current Concerns)