Agricultural policy must take into account global developments

Agricultural policy must take into account global developments

by Gotthard Frick*

This is not a statement concerning the legislation on Swiss agriculture here. Today, our soil apparently can cover only 55% of our needs. However, this is an outline of worldwide medium and long-term developments that should be taken into consideration in the Swiss agricultural policy. The data of the various international sources are slightly deviant. So we are talking about  averaged orders of magnitude. Only a few specific examples can be given to the major issues. We will be starting with the conclusions.


The global development outlined below will lead to supply shortfalls, dependencies, tensions and conflicts and would have to be considered while making decisions about Switzerland’s long-term agricultural policy.
Humanity continues to grow massively for years, mainly in less-developed countries. Competition for vital resources, including the agriculturally usable soil, is increasing. At the same time the area available for food production decreases on a large scale. In addition, not only large corporations are buying up huge areas of fertile land, but in recent years many states (including India, China, Saudi Arabia) appeared as land buyers in other countries who fear that soon they will not be able to feed their population anymore. Countries needing to import food for their populations are thus increasingly dependent on these groups. Also, the food and raw materials being produced worldwide on soil owned by distant third-countries, will be probably only available for the peoples of those countries. Prices will rise. Large numbers of people move from rural areas, where they modestly could provide for their families as farmers, into mega-cities where they become completely dependent on sufficient food supply. Governments are increasingly ensuring that no shortage situations will arise, and if necessary, import food on large scale or reduce their exports. Fresh water – precondition for food production – is running out. Waste on land and in the rivers, lakes and seas becomes a problem and begins to threaten the local fish and other creatures – in addition to overfishing in many seas.

Population growth

Today 7.5 billion people inhabit the world. In 6 years there will be 500 million more children, from new-born up to five-year-old. In addition, 320 million kids come to the same age group, replacing the people who died in this period. Admittedly population growth decreases, but not as fast as predicted. So, in the six-year period after next, probably around 750 million children will be born. 300 million will replace people deceased during this period and about 450 additional millions, driving the population growth. This natural addition to the “world community” will need additional food, water, a wide range of products, housing, infrastructure, education, professions and energy.
Some more than 50 million people die each year. If you set this in reference to the world’s population of 7.5 million, so that would be an average life span of 150 years. Since we will not get so old, how can that be explained? Because a large part of mankind is young. In addition, people in developed countries live so much longer today, they die later as the previous generations and other countries catch up in this regard. Some examples show this:
In Switzerland there are of 7.5 million inhabitants 15.6% in the group of young people up to the age of 14, and 16.3% are older than 64, belong to the group of the “old”. The European Union has among its population of 509.3 million 15.4% young and 17.3% old people in the above defined ages.
However, of 85.3 million Egyptians are 31.4% in the group of young people and only 4.8% in the group of over 64, in Ethiopia of 93.9 million people 46.1% are in the group of the younger and only 2.7% in the group of the elder. In Bangladesh, of 163.6 million inhabitants 34.6% by belong to the younger and 4% to the elder. For the 1.22 billion Indians, the ratio is 31.1% to 5.3%. Niger is the extreme case. Of its 17 million inhabitants, 49.6% are in the group of up to 14 and only 2.3% are over 64.
The fertility rate, i.e. the number of live births per woman, is revealing. A few examples:
Switzerland 1.5; Russia 1.6; China 1.6 (one-child policy); Afghanistan 5.5; Bangladesh 2.5; Burundi 6.0; Eritrea 4.2; Guinea 5.0; Congo Kinshasa 5.0; Mali 6.2; Mozambique 5.3; Nigeria 5.3; Pakistan 2.6; Philippines 2.6; Zambia 5.8; South Sudan 5.5; Uganda 6.0; UAE 2.4; Niger, one of the poorest countries, is also here in the first place, with about 7 children per woman (source:
The large proportion of the 1–14 and the small proportion of the over 64 in many developing and emerging markets ensures that population growth will continue much longer. The young will have several children and the elderly live longer. In addition, President Erdogan just asked the Turks to have 5 children, in order to promote the advance of Islam in Europe.

Mega urbanisation

The cities are getting bigger and bigger. China has nearly 200 cities with more than 1 million up to several million inhabitants, so Chongqing has 33 million. Tokyo is the most populous city in the world with 36 million. In mega cities around the world entire districts are in the hands of criminal gangs and drug cartels. In the large slums of mega cities extremely poor people are living. In a few decades more than 10 billion people will live in mega cities, so supplying them will be a major task. China actively promotes the relocation of farmers into the cities and imports today already large quantities of food. In 2012, allegedly it had imported 2.3 million tons of rice from Pakistan, Thailand, and Vietnam, four times as much as in 2011.

Loss and purchases of agricultural soils, loss of forests

On the other hand, 100,000 square kilometres of agricultural soils are lost annually by overbuilding, poisoning, exhaustion, erosion and desertification. So, China has lost 200,000 square kilometres of agricultural land in the first 30 years since the reforms of 1978 and the transformation into an economic power. It needs 1.12 million square kilometres to feed its current population – but this polulation grows as well – and has only 1.2 million square kilometres. From 2005 to 2013, 100,000 soil samples were tested there on 6.3 million square kilometres. 20% of agricultural soils proved to be contaminated, mostly by heavy metals, sometimes far beyond a more tolerable limit. As one reads in the Chinese press again and again that huge amounts of poisoned grain had to be destroyed (for example 12 million tons in 2012).
According to the NZZ-Magazine Folio No 11 of 2012 (monthly supplement to the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”), agricultural areas as large as the area of Western Europe, were already at that time in the hands of large groups. Increasingly, corporations from non-western states have joined up with buyers or long-term tenants. For some years now, however, countries such as China, the Gulf States, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and others have been buying or leasing good agricultural land in an aggressive manner, out of concern that they will soon not be able to feed their population anymore. Even before the overthrow of 2014 in Ukraine, three large US corporations gained possession of 20,000 square kilometres of the world’s most fertile soils, of which a total of 320,000 are available for purchase, and also took over seed companies, grain warehouses and parts of the grain handling port. Since then, China and other countries have been active there as buyers. According to Swissaid, a Brazilian-Japanese company produces in Mozambique on 90,000 square kilometres rice and maize for export and a Lebanese group in Romania on 65,000 hectares food and meat for export to, among others, the Middle East. More than half of the agriculturally usable land of the Philippines is said to be already in foreign hands and 70% of the land in Germany is no longer owned by the farmers who cultivate it. According to the British OXFAM, from the beginning of this century until 2015, an additional 200 million hectares are said to have been bought or leased, in addition to agricultural land already in foreign hands. (By comparison, the EU has 185 million hectares of arable land.) Whilst Africa, South America and Asia were the main targets of the global land buyers, today land is purchased also in large-scale operations in Europe.
In Madagascar, there was a governmental crisis after it became public that an area the size of Belgium should be sold. In order not to attract too much attention due to the sheer size of the areas, China is said to have started to buy individual farms, for example in Zimbabwe, before it used to acquire huge areas just like the other buyers.
The corporations build very large, efficiently managed plantations that produce food primarily for the rich countries, but often crop products for fuel production or animal food for our luxury meat consumption or rubber or other raw materials for the industry. However, the countries buying large-scale quantities of land around the world will in future primarily supply their mega-cities with the products they produce instead of exporting them to third countries. Millions of farming families are losing their livelihoods and are migrating into the mega-cities with their slums.
Every year, around 90,000 square kilometres of land are deforested. In addition, the author saw on a trip to Canada huge areas of dead forests. According to local foresters, the pests did not perish because of the warm winter and have infested many millions of pines and firs. Even green-looking large forests are already doomed to die back. The area gone dead is reported to be the equivalent to that of Sweden. In addition, there are tens of thousands of square kilometres of dead forests in the USA.

Fresh water is scarce

Worldwide, drinking water and fresh water are scarce. Without water, there is no food production. Experts believe that water will become the most common cause of war in this century. Today there are serious tensions here and there because of water.
There are many reasons for the increasing water shortage: Absence of rainfall due to climate change, overexploitation, exhaustion, pollution and poisoning, diversions and for downstream users disrupting overexploitation of rivers and streams by those living upstream.
Lake Chad, the size of 25,000 square kilometres a few decades ago, has meanwhile shrunk to around 1,500 square kilometres, depending on the extent of the rainfall. The lake is essential for the populations survival of the four riparian states Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon.
Due to the shifting of the shore, Niger and Nigeria have no direct access to the water of the lake any more. The decline was caused by the deforestation of the local forests and the subsequent absence of rain and overuse of water for irrigation. The decline in food production has caused latent famine there. 2.7 million people were forced to go to refugee camps. They are hoping for a possibility to migrate to Europe soon. A Chinese corporation is currently investigating whether the lake could recover by diverting the Ubangi, a major tributary of the Congo. But even if the already once-rejected gigantic project materializes, it would take years for the water to flow into the lake. What the diversion of a river, which is five times larger than the Rhine near Basel, means for the affected drainage area (19 times the area of Switzerland), is another story.
In certain places there are large amounts of fossil groundwater beneath arid areas. It was stored in the ground when there was a different climate thousands of years ago. But it does not regenerate. It is used in many places for water supply. A few decades ago, Saudi Arabia began building huge farms irrigated with groundwater in the middle of the desert and to produce milk there, for example, with up to 50,000 Dutch high-performance dairy cows. However, due to this intensive use, the groundwater level has dropped by many hundreds of meters. The government has now ordered to give up these farms so that the groundwater remains available to humans for a little longer.
Libya is also an extremely dry desert country. But 3,800 kilometres in the south, in the Sahara, there are nearly 40,000 cubic kilometres of clean groundwater. Gaddafi wanted to solve the water problem for the next 100 years and started a gigantic project under the slogan “water instead of weapons”. The plan was to bring the water to the coastal region by means of 5 pipelines with a diameter of 4 meter. For this purpose, a tube factory was built. Libya became the world leader in this field. 3 of the 5 planned pipelines were already in operation, and the inhabited Mediterranean coast was supplied with sufficient drinking and service water. But in the view of the West, as it so often happens in countries that do not want to bow to western ideas, Gaddafi had to be bombed away. The major western air raids destroyed 2 of the 3 pipelines and the tube factory and suddenly shut off half of the population’s water supply. The UN and World Bank are said to consider privatizing the project. The water reserves in the desert are still there and could help to improve the profits of corporations.
Decades ago, many rivers and lakes in Switzerland were so polluted that people could no longer go for a swim there. The nationwide construction of wastewater treatment plants has solved the problem. Many countries are in an even worse position because their waters are much more polluted than our waters ever were. In China, many rivers, even those that flow through big cities, but also lakes smell like dung water. In many countries, the polluted rivers contribute to the contamination of agricultural soils.
China is said to have had more than 50,000 rivers in 1990, with a drainage area of at least 100 square kilometres. In 2011, there were less than 23,000.
Countries in the lower reaches of streams, relying on their water for their people and for food production, are in dire straits when neighbouring countries are damming up the water upstream for their own use, consume it for their people, irrigate their land and build factories relying on water, thereby polluting the rivers with their wastewater. Egypt depends on Sudan and Ethiopia, Iraq on Syria and Turkey, Syria on Turkey, Bangladesh on India, Brazil on Peru, and so on. But Switzerland, too, with its natural water reserves of Europe, lies at the headwaters of the rivers flowing into its neighbouring countries. If the glaciers melt away, the water does not flow so abundantly, the countries located downstream could also come up with demand.
Drinking water is also becoming scarce. Big corporations buy up the springs and bottle the water. At present, 200 billion litres are bottled annually, which is already around 27 litres per person. The inhabitants of poor areas suffer hardship because the bottled water is too expensive for them and the sources are sucked up by the corporations.


What do we see when we step into one of our glittering supermarkets? We look at a garbage pile. The garbage glitters brightly in all colours and consists of a variety of materials. But what we see, we do not want to buy, but only what is packed inside the garbage on the shelfs. Recently, even single pieces of vegetables and fruits are wrapped in plastic and cellophane.
In Switzerland, the waste is still fairly well managed and recycled, like a part of the 500 million milk bottles per year. Dangerous garbage is exported out of Europe, USA and Australia. Among other things, electronic equipment is shipped to Accra, the capital of Ghana, where 100 containers arrive each month. There is now one of the largest electronic waste piles in the world. But other emerging and developing countries are also supplied with electronic, contaminated or toxic waste. The poor there, often children, then try to extract the valuable raw materials from deposed devices on these garbage dumps, to sell it to traders, who deliver it back to the developed countries, where it is used in the latest smartphones or tablet computers. The people who sift through the electronic garbage suffer from serious health damage.
On islands with luxury resorts, for example on the Maldives, the garbage is collected and dumped on a reserved, already very packed island. The beaches in front of many hotels in the tourist destinations are cleaned regularly, so that tourists believe the world is still tidy. Everywhere in the world, where the garbage is collected, for example, on Greek islands, large mountains of garbage arise. Not long ago we could read that in the south of China on a high hill of garbage, a landslide took place, destroying several houses and causing fatalities. The garbage mountains, even if they are finally covered with earth and look like natural hills, pollute the water and the soil. In the less developed countries, the garbage is thrown away, perhaps always on the same heap, in rivers, lakes and the sea. In the past, when everything was made of plant, animal and other natural materials, that caused no problem. But today the winds are blowing plastic garbage, paper, PET bottles, cardboard boxes, fabrics and more over the fields. One has to see the farmers’ fields near big cities in Africa to understand what is going on there.

Overfishing and marine pollution

Since humans exist, they get food from the sea. It is already well-known that the Mediterranean has been fished empty, in part by state-of-the-art equipped fishing fleets from Asia. Now they are at work off the coast of West Africa where the coastal villages are very dependent on fishing. In other parts of the sea, riparians are trying to prevent the eradication of fish with quotas, restrictions on approved equipment and methods and other measures.
The garbage, including plastic, becomes an additional big problem. Everybody has heard of the hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of plastic patches in the Pacific. But all the seas are affected. More and more fish and seabirds eat the plastic debris and die from it. But the plastic continues to decompose. The tiny particles are eaten by the plankton creatures – the very first link of the food chain – and perish. The larger species that live on the plankton have no more food and are also drowning; and so the dying continues through the food chain in the sea.
In many coastal countries the garbage is dumped into the sea. Anyone who used to travel by ferry in the Mediterranean has already witnessed this kind of “disposal”. The large plastic bags in the waste containers on the ships were tied together an hour before arrival at the port of destination and then dumped over the stern into the sea. Like pearls of a chain, the sacks lay in the wake swimming in the water and then slowly began, after bursting, to sink surrounded by a swarm of screeching gulls. Also, many coastal sites dump their trash over steep cliffs. Although there are here and there environmentally friendly methods to dispose the garbage, the bottom of the Mediterranean and probably other seas is covered in some places by high piles of waste. But that is what happens in all the seas. The lonely beaches of beautiful uninhabited islands are littered with garbage washed ashore.    •

*     Gotthard Frick studied Civilisation française, economics and business administration at the University of Paris (Sorbonne and Sciences Po). For many years he was involved in major infrastructure projects (power plants, power lines, roads, tunnels, irrigation systems) in Switzerland and overseas. From 1968 to 2004, he dedicated himself to establishing and chairing a consulting, management and training company with an affiliated English-language college, which works for all development banks, UN organisations (ILO, WTO, UNDP), OECD, Swiss and more other governments and companies. Today he often stays in China. He was an infantry battalion commander in the Swiss Army. Thanks to his visits to foreign armies (Germany, Pakistan), NATO and the US Air Force bases in Germany and Panama, he has a broad background in military science. Gotthard Frick is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland.
(Translation Current Concerns)

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