Self-sufficiency with salt the Swiss way

Who is annoyed by the cantons’ salt monopoly?

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

The availability of salt is so self-evident for us that it is easy to forget: Salt is one of the vital goods. This is explained in short form, for example, in the “Welt”: “You can taste the salt content of 0.9 percent, namely in your tears. The salt content in the body is about 200 grams. Without salt, the cells would not be viable, the organs would not function and the water balance would be out of balance.”1 Self-sufficiency in vital goods, which was recently discussed here,2 must also be guaranteed with regard to salt. For this reason, the Swiss Confederation classifies the Swiss Saltworks “as an enterprise relevant to the system and supply”.3
    
Salt is one of the few raw materials that are available in sufficient quantities in Switzerland. But salt is not simply available to us either. In times of pandemics, it is also necessary to ensure and strengthen self-sufficiency here too. Because, as can be read in the daily press, some deposits will run out in the next few years and new ones will have to be developed. The cantons have always been responsible for this. They have the sovereign right to extract salt, the so-called “Salzregal”, which also enables strong protective measures to be taken with regard to imports. Instead of standing behind full self-sufficiency, as is necessary today, a number of globalisation turbos are suddenly emerging to use a temporary bottleneck to crack the sovereign right “Salzregal”.
    How the cantons exercise the Swiss-style „Salzregal“ and how – so far, however, in vain – attempts have been made to tinker with it, will be the subject of discussion here.

For more than 450 years, the Swiss Saltworks have been producing the salt that the entire Swiss population needs – today, not only as table salt: “Salt is very versatile: we use it to season our food, de-ice the roads in winter or soften the water in the dishwasher. The raw material is also used in over 10,000 products. Salt is found in acids, dyes, glass, medicines, aluminium and PVC plastics. Because its use is so versatile, the Swiss Saltworks offer over 50 different products.” (https://www.salz.ch/en/our-salt-brands) It is important to know that table salt accounts for only about 9 % of production, with the largest proportion of 30–50 % being used to thaw roads.4
    The homepage of the Swiss Saltworks describes in detail how the salt is extracted using modern technology. Here only briefly, so that we laymen can roughly imagine it: The salt layers are opened up by means of exploratory drillings, then the salt is leached out at depths of up to 400 metres with supplied water, and the concentrated salt solution is pumped up, softened and evaporated. (https://www.salz.ch/en/salt-knowledge)

The cantons are the owners of the saltworks
and protect the domestic production

Today, the Swiss Saltworks are owned by all 26 cantons and the Principality of Liechtenstein. Since salt cannot be mined everywhere in the country, the cantons have concluded a concordat (agreement between several or all cantons), as they always do when necessary. The Concordat of 1973 regulates the salt trade of the Swiss Saltworks and thus guarantees the supply of salt to all regions at favourable and uniform prices. Only Vaud (Waadt) did not join the concordat and continued operating its own saline in Bex. In 2014, Swiss Saltworks on the Rhine AG and Saline de Bex SA merged to form Swiss Saltworks AG. The 26 cantons and Liechtenstein hold 100 per cent of the shares. For each canton a current or former member of the government sits on the board of directors and the 27th seat is held by Liechtenstein. At the three locations Bex, Riburg (Canton of Aargau) and Schweizerhalle (Canton of Baselland), the saltworks produce up to 600,000 tons of salt per year. (https://www.salz.ch/en/we-make-sure-whole-switzerland-supplied-salt)
    In order to be able to guarantee sufficient self-sufficiency at all times, especially with regard to the weather-dependent fluctuations in the demand for road salt in winter, the cantons protect their own production from cheap imports via the Swiss Saltworks AG. The free quantity is 50 kg, for larger imports a written application must be submitted. Different tariffs are applied depending on the type of salt and the quantity imported. It is fascinating what is being imported: from herbal salts to flavoured and coloured bath salt mixtures to salt blocks for salt cave construction or salt lumps for sculptors.5

The expected bottleneck and how it should be filled

“Switzerland is running out of salt, its own salt. Time is running out: The Swiss Saltworks need a replacement for the failed project under the Muttenz Rütihard. The supply gap will arise from 2025 at the latest – in the calendar of salt production this is already tomorrow. The company is working at full speed to find alternatives.“ That’s what we read recently well covered in the daily press.6
    The facts: From 2025 there will indeed be a bottleneck, but only temporarily. The reason for this is the situation in Schweizerhalle, the largest and most productive saline in Switzerland. Schweizerhalle is located in the two communities of Pratteln and Muttenz (Canton of Baselland) on the Rhine. A devastating chemical fire accident in 1986 made the place famous worldwide. But salt extraction took place in Schweizerhalle long before Basel’s chemical industry set up its plants there. (“Schweizerhalle” is a former name for Swiss Saltworks). However, by around 2025 the three active drilling fields in Schweizerhalle will be exhausted. The planned development of new underground salt fields in the neighbouring Rütihard area in Muttenz would have covered the salt requirements for an estimated 25 years. But the resistance from the population for various reasons could not be overcome despite a long dialogue. On 30 June, the Swiss Saltworks announced that the Rütihard project would be postponed for about twenty years.7
    Of course, the company has long since found an adequate alternative. Talks have been under way for quite some time now on the development of a new drilling field in the Fricktal (Canton of Aargau), not far from Schweizerhalle and also located on the Rhine. In the “Nordfeld”area there, 7.6 million tonnes of salt are to be extracted over a period of 30 years, so that Switzerland’s supply is secured for about 30 years. As was already reported in February 2020, the population and the associations for environmental protection in the communities of Möhlin, Wallbach and Zeiningen are behind the project, as there is no reason to oppose it on environmental grounds.8 “Salt mining is very important in the region,” says Fredy Böni, the mayor of Möhlin, for example. As it is customary in Switzerland, the project is being developed in dialogue with the authorities, landowners, nature conservationists and farmers, and agreement is being sought on the route of the pipeline and the compensatory measures. In addition, a “nature fund Salzgut” will be set up, with which the Swiss Saltworks intend to invest one Swiss franc per tonne of mined salt, in order to promote local nature and landscape conservation projects and “give something back to nature”. “If everything goes according to plan”, wrote the “Aargauer Zeitung” in February 2020, “the building and drilling permits will be available within two years. In 2022, the Saltworks want to begin with the construction of the 5.5-kilometer-long transport pipeline. From 2026 the first of a total of around 50 volleyball-field-sized drilling sites is to go into operation.”
    Until the salt production in the Fricktal area gets into gear, there will indeed be a gap in self-sufficiency. Thereto Köbi Frei, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Schweizer Salinen AG and a long-standing member of the governing council of the Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden: “It will now be unavoidable for several years to import some salt. This will enable us to conserve our remaining salt stocks in Muttenz, in the Fricktal and in Vaud for extraordinary situations that cannot be reliably handled by imports”. Afterwards, however, the imports are no longer necessary, says Köbi Frei.9

Is the salt monopoly of the cantons a hoary relic?

This is where some critics of the cantonal salt monopoly come in. According to Michael Köpfli, Secretary General of the Green Liberal Party of Switzerland, self-sufficiency is no longer guaranteed anyway. His recipe is to open the limits for salt imports at lower prices. He is currently trying to crack the salt monopoly in the canton of Bern and instigate party politicians in other cantons (Glarus, Lucerne, and Thurgau) to do so. A year and a half ago he announced on Facebook: “The salt monopoly is an anti-competitive relic from the Middle Ages. It leads to inflated prices for consumers and communities. Together with green liberals from various cantons, we are trying to crack this monopoly.” (Facebook post of 7 February 2019). Then he goes one better: “It only takes one canton to bow out of the salt monopoly, and then it would collapse like a house of cards.”10
    Köpfli’s campaign may sound (economically) liberal, but certainly not green, aligned neither towards environmental protection and sustainability, nor towards a reliable public service for everyone.
    On public service: “The salt monopoly is a relic from the Middle Ages?” The Swiss Saltworks reply: “From the Middle Ages, yes, relic no! There are good reasons why the cantons are maintaining the autonomous Swiss salt supply system even today. Whereas in the past the focus was primarily on ensuring food security while maintaining independence from foreign powers, today the focus is on ensuring mobility, especially in the winter months.” This is “an important public service of the cantons and communities”. In order to be able to rely on an optimally functioning winter mobility service, the guaranteed availability of de-icing salt as well as proximity to the supplier are a condition. (
https://www.salz.ch/en/salt-knowledge)
    On sustainability: The fact that the production of salt in one’s own country is more sustainable than imports should be obvious to anyone concerned about the environment. A scientific study published by the Swiss Saltworks in January 2019 on the life cycle assessment of various de-icing salts came to the conclusion that, compared with imports, Swiss salt has the best life cycle assessment in every respect, because: “Long transport routes from abroad are omitted. In addition, in Switzerland the salt is produced 100% with electricity from hydroelectric power.”11
    Michael Köpfli’s motion failed in the Bernese Grand Council (cantonal parliament) because the “level of suffering was too small for communities suffering from high prices for road salt or consumers who paid more for table salt”, said Köpfli, although this did not stop him from making a second attempt in the fall.12 A kilo of table salt with iodine and fluorine from the Swiss Jura at the Landi (agricultural cooperative) costs 95 cents. Swiss housewives don’t really suffer, because they only use small amounts of salt when cooking and baking. Why reverse an established regulation?
    Incidentally, there are also no legal reasons against the cantonal salt monopoly, according to the Federal Council in its response to a motion in the National Council in 2010. At international level, WTO law allows a commodity such as salt to be placed under a monopoly. At national level, the cantons’ salt monopoly does not contravene the principle of economic freedom in Article 94 of the Federal Constitution, which in paragraph 4 expressly allows the cantons to deviate from it on the basis of their monopoly rigths. Finally, the salt monopoly is not subject to federal antitrust law, because it is not of private law nature, but of public law nature.13
    Again: Why reverse an established regulation?

“An autonomous provision with basic supplies is worth its weight in gold”

For Köbi Frei, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Swiss Saltworks, it is clear that salt imports will only be a temporary solution:
    “The cantons are convinced that the rich salt deposits in our country should be used for self-sufficiency. This is demonstrably more reliable, more ecological and generally also more economical than imports.” And with reference to the experience during the Corona crisis: “We have to get away from imports as soon as possible. The experiences we have just made with the Covid-19 pandemic show that an autonomous provision with basic supplies is worth its weight in gold. For this reason, the Swiss government also classifies the Swiss Saltworks as a system and supply relevant company”. When asked whether it would be realistic to return to a purely domestic salt supply later, Köbi Frei replies: “Absolutely! We are sticking to the principle of a domestic salt supply. It is [...] a shining example of solidarity among the cantons. Dependence on imports always harbours a risk.”14
    Focusing on the lower prices of imported products as an advantage for the population falls short – not only with salt. Chairman Frei rightly speaks of a “shining example” of solidarity among the cantons and the population, because “the Swiss Saltworks have consistent and therefore solidary-based prices which are stable. [...] In other words, it does not matter if you deliver to the nearby city of Basel or to faraway Poschiavo; the price is always the same.” (
https://www.salz.ch/en/salt-knowledge)
    With this in mind, Government Councillor Beatrice Simon, who is a member of the Board of Directors of the Swiss Saltworks on behalf of the Canton of Berne, expresses her thanks. “Switzerland’s salt supply is an exemplary expression of the fundamental idea of solidarity in our country. For a canton like Berne [with a large area and 342 communities, many of them in Alpine valleys, mw] the guaranteed supply of all winter services at the same conditions is of greatest value. Our thanks go to the communities in Aargau, Basel District and Vaud, which make the continued existence of our Saltworks possible and thus give independence to all Swiss cantons”.15


1  Bördlein, Ingeborg. «Ohne Salz würde der Mensch nicht überleben» (Man would not survive without salt.), in: Die Welt from 15 February 2008
2  Wüthrich, Marianne. „More solid self-sufficiency is the order of the day“; in: Current Concerns from 7 July 2020
3  «Wir brauchen Planungssicherheit für die Salzversorgung» (We need planning security for the salt supply), Interview with the president of the board of directors of the Swiss Saltworks, Köbi Frei, from 30 June 2020; https://www.saline.ch/blog/wir-brauchen-planungssicherheit-fuer-die-salzversorgung/
4  All about the Swiss Saltworks https://www.salz.ch/en
5  «Schweizer Salinen. Regeln und Verfahren für den Import von Salz in die Schweiz» (Swiss Saltworks. Rules and procedures for the import of salt into Switzerland) from 3 February 2014. https://contenthub.salz.ch/sites/default/files/2020-06/Regeln_und_Verfahren_fur_den_Import_von_Salz_in_die_Schweiz.pdf
6  Wieland, Benjamin. “White gold is urgently sought – why Switzerland is threatened with running out of its own salt”; in: Newspaper for the region Basel bz (Zeitung für die Region Basel bz), 20 July 2020
7  “We need planning security for the salt supply”, interview with Köbi Frei, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Swiss Saltworks, 30 June 2020
8  Wehrli, Thomas. “So that the salt does not melt away in the hands”; in: Aargauer Zeitung am Wochenende, 15 February 2020
9  “We need planning security for the salt supply”, interview with Köbi Frei, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Swiss Saltworks, 30 June.2020
10 Schlegel, Yann. “GLP will staatliches Monopol der Salzgewinnung abschaffen“ (GLP wants to abolish state monopoly of salt production), in: Luzerner Zeitung from 8 February 2019
11 Schweizer Salinen. Ökobilanz-Studie. Schweizer Salz umweltfreundlicher als Importe (Swiss Saltworks. Life cycle assessment study. Swiss salt more environmentally friendly than imports) of 31 January 2019. (https://www.salz.ch/de/oekobilanz-studie)
12 Ritter, Pascal. “Grünliberale wollen Salzkartell knacken” (Green liberals want to crack salt cartel), in: St. Galler Tagblatt from 27 July 2020
13 10.3842 Interpellation salt monopoly from 1 October 2010 in the National Council
14 “We need planning security for the salt supply”, interview with Köbi Frei, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Swiss Saltworks, on 30 June 2020
15 “Schweizer Salinen passen Abbauplanung an und sistieren Salzgewinnung unter der Rütihard” (Swiss Saltworks adapt mining plans and suspend salt production under the Rütihard) https://www.saline.ch/blog on 30 June.2020

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