Swiss Federal Referendum of 24 September 2017
On 24 September, we will vote on the alternative draft to the food safety initiative of the Swiss Farmers Association SFA. A month before the vote there is a strange silence in the country: while all newspapers are full of articles, adversarial podiums and reader’s letters to the two federal proposals for old-age provision, there is hardly a discussion about the third vote issue. Apparently, politics and the media assume by the majority that the alternative draft is practically uncontested. Politicians and association functionaries insist that there is practically the same content as in the retired people’s initiative. In fact, the proposal coming now to the vote has completely different objectives. The fact is: the crucial point of the popular initiative, the strengthening of a diverse and sustainable domestic production of food which means a high degree of self-sufficiency, does not occur in the counter-proposal. In contrast, there’s the highly controversial point: “The Federal Government creates conditions for [...] cross-border trade relations which contribute to the sustainable development of agriculture and food industry”.1
In the voting booklet of 24 September, the Federal Council writes: “The referendum ‘Food Security’ initiated by the ‘Swiss Farmer’s Union’ [...] demanded that the Federal Government strengthens supplying the population with food from local production. Federal Council and Parliament recognised the importance of food security. They did not support the initiative though, because it was aligned too much on domestic production from their point of view.”2
But that’s just the point, if we ask for a larger food security: to promote domestic production! 150,000 Swiss voters signed the initiative of the Farmers Association for this purpose. Of course, Switzerland is in addition depending “on imports of food and agricultural production equipment such as engines, diesel and fertilser” and of course “good trade relations with foreign countries [...] are crucial for our food security”3. For small States like Switzerland this has always been the case. But it is at the latest commonly known since the elaboration of the World Agricultural Report 2009 that with the world population’s growing – just as a precaution for crises and shortages of all kinds –much more importance must be given to local production. This urgent demand of our time – applying not only to poorer regions – cannot be called an “economic foreclosure from abroad”4 what isn’t appropriate for any country, and not only for Switzerland where only slightly more than half of food is domestically produced. No one can guarantee that we are doing always so well as today. But we can care of a reduced dependence on foreign countries and thus a greater food sovereignty.
Apparently, it isn’t clear to anyone that this means that we must take care of our agriculture. We cannot demand a high quality of our food and at the same time reduce direct payments for agriculture, as Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann disclosed as a target in July. Put together small family farms to large farms? He cannot be serious! Switzerland is a country with small spaces and with a correspondingly small-scale economy (the financial sector comprises only 6-8% of the Swiss companies). Over 99% of the Swiss companies are SMEs (small and medium- sized enterprises), as well as in agriculture. Large agricultural corporations fit neither to our geography nor the life attitude of most Swiss.
The proposals for the referendum which will be presented to the sovereign on 24 September is according to the Swiss Federal Council “for market-oriented, sustainable as well as national and international networked agriculture and food industry”5. In plain language: Import protection for the local agricultural products shall be cancelled, although it is clear for everybody that Swiss producers – because of the strong franc, the high cost of living and the strict health and environmental regulations in Switzerland estimated by the consumer – cannot compete with the much lower prices in other countries. Without “concessions” of the agricultural sector, so the Federal Council says, the conclusion of free trade agreements will become difficult or impossible.
This is not true: over decades Switzerland has concluded many trade agreements over the EFTA with the exclusion of agriculture, including the EEC in 1972 – an important treaty still valid today. There is no objection to international trade relations, as long as the partners are on equal terms with each other and all the states involved can decide sovereignly. Particularly regarding alimentation this is essential for the protection of the population. This is also in line with the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD): the most controllable, the least polluting for the environment and the most sustainable is the small-scale, local production and processing of agricultural products.
Where a borderless food market, which cannot be controlled by the individual states, can lead, is clearly visible in the so-called egg scandal which we have just experienced. We leave it to the experts to assess how dangerous the illegal incorporation of the insecticide Fipronil for the disinfection of poultry farms can be for the human health.
From an economic, ecological and legal point of view, this example demonstrates how much the absurdity of the pan- European carting around of goods of all kinds and in various processing conditions has developed. For mass egg producers, logistics companies and intermediaries, it may be desirable to transport eggs in the shell, in liquid or powdered form throughout Europe. For the health of humans and animals as well as for the protection of the environment, the local production and processing is undoubtedly much better. And the creation of jobs is even more fairly distributed if the need for eggs is covered in each country directly and the processing of pasta, cookies and many other nourishments is carried out near their own poultry farms.
The process in brief: At the beginning of August: Dutch authorities report that some 3 million potentially contaminated eggs were delivered to the neighboring German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. 4 August: Polluted eggs are already appearing in nine German states. Belgian and Dutch companies mutually pass responsibility. In the Netherlands, 180 laying hen plants are closed, five in Germany. Since many potentially contaminated eggs have already been put on sale, the authorities warn against eggs with certain control stamps, but at the same time assure that there is only a minor health risk.6 Also on 4 August: In Switzerland, in M-budget eggs (the low-cost products of the Swiss major distributor Migros) have been found traces of Fipronil.7 10 August: Twelve European countries are already affected. In Romania, for example, one tonne of contaminated liquid yolk from Germany is discovered. In Slovakia, 20 pallets of polluted hardboiled eggs – delivered from Germanyvia the Netherlands, in Danmark about 20 tonnes of such hard-boiled eggs reach directly the canteens and catering companies.8 12 August: Fipronil-containing eggs in 17 countries, including Hong Kong. Several people are arrested in Belgium and the Netherlands. And so on – inevitably one must think of Goethe’s “sorcerer’s apprentice” who couldn’t get rid of the self-called ghosts ...
On 11 August, EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis proposed a meeting of the relevant ministers and authorities of the countries concerned. He had criticized Belgium before, because the food control there already knew of Fipronileggs in June, but had not informed Europe- wide. On 11 August, Andriukaitis said: “It does not take us any further if we mutually push the Jackass.” Jackass, however, has meanwhile landed at the EU Commission itself: According to “Berliner Zeitung” of 9.8.2017, the EU received first information on Fipronil as early as the beginning of July! The EU Commissioner apparently does not seem to be in a particular rush despite the serious situation: the first talks will take place on the fringe of an agricultural meeting in Estonia on 4 or 5 September.9
Instead of opening the borders to agriculture and letting in all sorts of lowcost products – in the worst case even health-damaging foods – we cleverly remain with border protection for agricultural products. This must be linked to the preservation of our agricultural enterprises and their high-quality production. Anyone who wants to consume healthy and sustainably produced indigenous nurture and who wants to keep the strict Swiss environmental and animal protection must also be prepared to provide taxmoney for the existence of Swiss farmers. In this sense: No to the so-called “food security bill” on 24 September! •
1 cf. “Food security” must be ensured. No to the counter(contrary)-proposal “Food security”, Current Concerns No. 19 of 15.8.2017
2 Federal vote of 24 September 2017, explanatory notes of the Federal Council (cited as: Voting booklet, p. 5)
3 Voting booklet, p. 7
4 Voting booklet, p. 9
5 Voting booklet, p. 10
6 cf. for example, “Eierskandal weitet sich aus” (Egg scandal expands). “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 4.8.2017
7 “Nicht nur Aldi vom Gift-Skandal betroffen: Migros zieht M-Budget-Eier aus dem Verkehr “ (Not only Aldi affected by the poison scandal: Migros withdraws M-budget-eggs from circulation). Blick online of 4.8.2017
8 “Kontaminierte Eier in zwölf europäischen Ländern” (Contaminated eggs in twelve European countries). Zeit online of 10.8.2017
9 “EU-Kommission lädt zum Eier-Gipfel” (EU Commission invites to the Egg Summit. “St. Galler Tagblatt” from 12.8.2017)
The Netherlands is the leading country in egg exports worldwide. For many years the Netherlands has been the leading egg exporting country with a share of 12 % of the global export volume in 2012.
According to the daily press, a Dutch farm needs at least 40,000 laying hens in order to reach the minimum turnover required for survival at the low prices that are announced in the face of fierce competition in the EU. In Switzerland, the voters have been determining the direction of agricultural policy since the 1950s. For example, poultry farming is subject to a maximum of 18,000 animals per farm and very strict rules on animal husbandry (Animal Protection Regulation Art. 66/67 plus federal technical information sheets). In Switzerland, the people have also banned genetically modified feed, which is not the case in the EU.
Hans Bieri, Swiss Federation of Industry and Agriculture SVIL
"If the direct payments are further reduced, as the Federal Council announced in July in the ‘Neue Zürcher Zeitung’, the farmers’ income would decline and decimate the production of commodities, as if we already had open borders. [...]
If we have agricultural protection in the form of subsidies, we still have the possibility to define the standards of import. But if the subsidies are cut away, domestic production will be so decimated that there is no need to discuss the standards of import goods with regard to food security.
Conclusion: Food security is first and foremost about agricultural protection, which is primarily about the income balance between the Swiss cost of living to those abroad. The clearer this protection is, the greater the chances of imposing the necessary minimum standards on imports. Without the former, the latter definitely hangs in the air."
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