Supplying the population with its own domestically produced food is a central aspect of the national supply of provisions and hence of national sovereignty. A nation which is not able to supply its population with enough food in times of crisis, is dependent on other countries and thus susceptible to blackmail and must undergo compromises in politically serious situations or even take over the policy of a powerful state under certain circumstances. How fast the powerful of this world take unilateral punitive measures against “unpopular states”, has become increasingly evident in recent years, the list is long. When a few years ago even Austria was punished with EU sanctions, because the population had voted for the “wrong” party, albeit in a democratic election, it came clearly to the point, how fast the winds can change, even under so-called friendly states.
In addition to an operational defence force, the independent supply of domestically produced food for the population is something for which National Councillor Büchler has campaigned for many years. In the following interview, he expresses himself mainly on the misguided agricultural policy of the Federal Government, the devastating effects which the latter has on the provision for our country and what it would take to ensure that our agriculture contributes to food security.
Current Concerns: The agricultural policy 14–17 (AP 14–17) contains an incredible number of flaws and is – even though the referendum against it has not been achieved – under permanent criticism. What are the points of criticism?
National Councillor Jakob Buechler: With the AP 14–17, the so-called animal contribution payments to cover the costs were abolished. The animal contributions have been very desirable and well introduced among the farmers. They are a contribution from the Federal Office for Agriculture for each farmer. In the department of Johann Schneider Ammann they were no longer considered up to date, because they argued that animal contributions led to more animals, more animals produced more milk or more meat, and that would finally lead to falling prices. The idea was: If we abolish animal contributions, you can counteract the development towards more animals and meat.
Is that a wrong idea?
Yes, of course. The animal contribution is a measurable amount of money. It was calculated in LU (livestock unit) and thus followed a transparent system.
What is the key here?
A cow is a livestock unit, two oxen are also one livestock unit as well as 7 sheep or 10 goats. You have everything converted into the livestock unit. That was a very good system. For a long time, animal contributions were also paid to the elk farms for their deer. In early 2000 there were demands to pay animal contributions for dairy cows. This was enacted and animal contributions were introduced for dairy cows, as had been done earlier for suckler cows. But agricultural policy 14–17 abolished all that.
They want to get away from the animal contributions towards landscape quality contributions. However, the Federal Council affirmed that no farmer should receive less direct payment as he did with the old system.
Has the promise been kept?
You have to understand that landscape quality is very difficult to measure. The absurdity is that the Federal Government said that from then on there were landscape quality contributions, but they forgot to define what exactly they meant. There were the orders which the cantons were urged to implement. And there were x different systems for the implementation of landscape quality contributions. There was, for example, a fence of bushes, which was to have a certain value. It has a natural value for birds and all kinds of animals upon and under the earth, and that has to be compensated.
Where is the benefit for the agricultural sector?
Among the animals there are some useful creatures that will earn the farmers some benefit. Maybe he will notice, maybe not. But in terms of direct payments this is obviously not measurable. A number of animals can be counted, but the benefit of a perennial herbaceous fence or a stone wall or a steep slope, where you could at least measure the area, is very difficult to measure. All that has led precisely to what we have always feared: a huge administrative burden. So-called culture engineers were needed, who then explain the farmers what to do with the perennial fence. It has changed the whole thing to the wrong side, which made the farmers object.
Did the rest of the parliamentarians not realize that such a system does not work?
We tried to prevent the development, but in the Council of States the animal contributions were rejected, and it was a farmers’ representative from a large mountainous canton, who spearheaded the campaign, and afterwards there was no longer any possibility to turn things around again.
A referendum would have been possible in this case.
We were unsure whether even more would get lost in case the referendum had been adopted, especially because most farmers had become involved in this development.
To a certain extent, this is not surprising, because they have finally been forced to adopt this system. It gets straight down to the income. If there are no more animal contributions, the income will of course decrease, and so the farmers do not hesitate to decide whether to join or not. The farmer is actually forced to join in so that he can maintain his income to some extent. That is the situation.
If parliamentarians fail here, it should be the people’s concern.
Yes, in Switzerland we are lucky to have such a system. The popular initiative for food security has met with wide support among the population. The collection of signatures happened very quickly, and we soon had the necessary 150,000 signatures. But it has also shown that the population is becoming increasingly aware of the problem. Food is important, self-supply is important, quality is important, and the best quality there can of course be found in our own country, in terms of milk, cheese or meat. In the cheese business, we have international obligations since there are open borders in the cheese trade. This should not happen with the milk. There have been repeated efforts to open the so-called white line, the dairy market, which means that foreign milk would also be imported to Switzerland. That would certainly mean the end of our dairy production. Fortunately, the major distributors are also against importing foreign milk, especially because the quality of Swiss milk is not achieved abroad. We have strict requirements on the quality, on all bacterial counts, on the numbers of cells. There are very high thresholds that Swiss milk must meet to make it compatible for cheese production. Other countries never come close to these standards. This is an asset for us. Wholesale distributors like Emmi want no foreign milk. This milk is frequently a mixture of several sources.
Why is this bad for the milk?
The quality of milk is getting worse with each new re-pumping. Milk contains fat. And the fat is present in the form of small beads, which are microscopically small. If you repeatedly pump the milk into a new vessel, these fat globules are violated. Then you can see the blobs of fat, and that means the destruction of the milk’s consistency. Therefore, it does not make sense to transport the milk so far. This is of course a problem in Switzerland. The best cheese is produced where the farmers are also at home. One cannot produce milk in eastern Switzerland and then bring it to Geneva in order to process it into cheese. That makes no sense environmentally.
That should indeed be prevented with AP 14–17, since they put ecology in the focus of attention. But what is the situation really like?
AP 14–17 was decided together with the corresponding payment frame. But now we have been realizing at the last press conference of Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, that she wants to cut contributions to agriculture by 72 million. This means that the farmers have to suffer further losses. They do not even get what they were promised in the act. That is absolutely unfair and cannot be done. This development must be fought by all means, and we will do so. In the army the same is true. We must have the 5 billion if we are to have an approximate security in our country.
What other impact has the present policy?
The farmers have no more planning security, which leads to a lack of investment. We need to give it back to them. The fact that more than 40 percent of the farms have no successor, is frightening. This is of course not surprising. Of course, if a young farmer’s daughter or a young farmer’s son says that with this kind of agricultural policy they can no longer earn sufficient income, then he or she certainly will not even start to go into farming but choose another profession. That is very sad. If you enter “Swiss farmers are looking for farm succession” into Google you will see what it said there, and that is frightening. It is actually a bad sign when you can no longer pass your farm on to the next generation. The farm succession is not regulated in many farmers’ families.
What does the future of agriculture look like? How can it regain the priority it deserves? Without agriculture no food supply in the country and without food no life.
The farmers should be granted greater freedom in terms of production. Producing of agricultural goods has lost in importance at the expense of ecology. This is bad. We cannot eat the beautiful countryside. It may be beautiful to look at, but we need food, we need cheese, milk, meat, salad and everything agriculture produces to feed the people. Of course it is good if you also respect ecology, but it should not be allowed that it goes as far as pushing the other objects into the background.
Isn’t the food security initiative that you mentioned of great importance here?
Yes, of course. I hope that the initiative for food security will take us back to producing on farms, increasing the value of the products again and bringing this whole issue closer to the citizens so that our agriculture and our country will have a future.
Mr National Councillor Büchler, thank you very much for the interview. •
(Interview Thomas Kaiser)
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