Pesticide- and Drinking Water Initiative – nothing new in Switzerland’s direct democracy

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

On 13 June we will vote on two agricultural initiatives. The pesticide initiative wants to ban both the use of pesticides on farms and the import of food treated with pesticides altogether. The drinking water initiative wants to set ecological standards for farmers even higher than before. For example, direct payments should only be paid if the farmer does not use pesticides and only keeps as many animals as he can feed with fodder from his own land. Neither initiative is “unique”. Most of their elements can be found in previous initiatives. They have a history and are part of a long tradition of popular initiatives, which will be examined below.

In the 1960s, Switzerland’s economy was booming. Strong immigration, housing shortages, inflation and a heavy burden on the environment soon led to major problems. The Federal Council and parliament tried to dampen the euphoric mood in the country and took numerous emergency measures against the overheating of the economy. These included credit restrictions and even construction bans. It was not enough. The water quality, for example, in Lake Zurich (from which the city of Zurich takes its drinking water) and also in other lakes increasingly deteriorated, so that the authorities had to ban swimming in Zurich and also in other places. This was an alarm signal.
  Agriculture was also booming. The import of cheap feed led to an undesirable increase in production. Problematic was the emergence of specialised, soil-independent farms with mass livestock farming, which were mainly run on cheap feed from abroad. The focus was on pig and poultry farming and large farms with fattening cattle. It became possible on a large scale to keep more animals than the own soil could provide in fodder. This disastrous development was a product of the euphoric mood in the then booming economy. Environmental protection and animal welfare were neglected because almost every economic project promised a quick profit.
  The feed was also linked to the later BSE scandal. The widespread, unnatural feeding of animal meal to ruminants was identified as the cause of BSE, which can lead to a variant of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans and to death. This shock greatly alarmed the population and further sensitised them to all issues of agriculture.

The people take on environmental issues

Already in the 1970s, the conviction was gaining ground that agricultural policy had to be reoriented. Not only the surpluses, but also animal welfare and the acute questions of environmental and water protection were of great concern to the population. The term “animal factory” soon became a political battle cry. In addition to the previous “milk lake” and “butter mountain”, there were now also “meat mountains”. The Federal Council tried to stop the unhealthy development by massively increasing the price of cheap feed from abroad with tariffs. However, this angered the small farmers who owned only a few hectares of land and could better make ends meet with the cheap feed from abroad. The situation had become difficult.
  There were three landmark referenda: in 1971, the people approved a new article on environmental protection in the Federal Constitution with over 90 per cent of the vote. This was followed in 1973 and 1975 by two further referenda on animal protection and on the protection of water and hydropower. Both proposals were also accepted with very high approval in all cantons.
  Modern waste incineration plants and sewage treatment plants were built all over the country, so that the situation soon improved. In many communes and regions, citizens’ movements were formed that advocated socially and environmentally compatible production methods. The SP and the bourgeois parties turned green. Green parties were formed in numerous cantons, and in 1987 they merged to form the Green Party of Switzerland. As the left-wing Progressive Organisations of Switzerland POCH gradually dissolved during these years, most of their activists joined the Greens. And – who would be surprised – there came years with many popular initiatives and referenda. It was to be one of the most intensive direct-democratic debates in the history of the federal state. But let’s take it one step at a time.

Introduction of the milk quota system and the first referendum

In the 1952 Agriculture Act, the Confederation had undertaken to take over the entire volume of milk at a price fixed by the state. As more and more surpluses became apparent, in March 1968 Parliament discussed introducing milk quotas, i.e. limiting the quantity of milk with official measures. In 1971 the Federal Council appointed a commission of experts with the professors Hans Christoph Binswanger and Hans Popp. They not only examined the question of milk quotas, but also looked into the idea of direct payments to secure farmers’ incomes – detached from the milk price fixed by the state. However, the time was not yet ripe for this.
  When the surpluses continued to rise, the Federal Council introduced milk quotas by emergency law in 1977, with the authorities calculating the amount of milk each individual farmer was allowed to deliver according to certain criteria.
  An ordinary legislative resolution by parliament soon followed. The “Union des Producteurs Suisse”, together with other farmers’ committees, launched a referendum. The people did not follow the protest from agriculture and approved the law in 1978 with 68 per cent.

First precursor of today’s Drinking Water- and Pesticides Initiative

A next popular initiative was not long in coming. In 1978, the “Zentralverband der Milchbauern” (Central Union of Dairy Farmers), together with animal rights activists, launched the initiative “Against excessive feed imports and animal factories” with 165,000 signatures. The proposed constitutional article largely coincided with the Federal Council’s policy, but went one step further: the initiative demanded that the Federal Council not only limit the import of imported feed, but also determine the permissible quantity for each individual farm. In other words, the federal government was to ration feed. The Federal Council and Parliament accepted the objective of the popular initiative and incorporated individual points – but without “feed rationing” – into the Agriculture Act. For example:
  Large animal stocks were to be reduced and the number of animals per farm limited. A permit was required for the construction of new stables and the conversion of existing ones. The envisaged upper limits: 250 head of large fattening cattle, 1,000 fattening pigs, 1,200 laying hens, etc. The revised Agriculture Act came into force, and the Central Union of Dairy Farmers withdrew its popular initiative. It had thus exerted pressure on politicians and at least partially achieved its goal.
  The referendum of the “Union des Producteurs Suisse” and the popular initiative of the dairy farmers were the prelude to a whole series of referenda and initiatives from the people and counterproposals from parliament. In the process, it becomes clear that a vote in direct democracy does not simply mean saying yes or no, but that the exercise of popular rights sets the legislative process in motion and can provide guidance to Parliament, so that sometimes a vote does not even occur.

“Gnue Heu dune” (That does it) – next forerunner in the eighties

In 1980, some farmers founded the “Association for the Protection of Small and Medium-Sized Farmers” VKMB and elected the charismatic René Hochuli as its president. They did not agree with the revision of the law and continued the fight against “soil-independent meat factories and mass production farms”. In 1985, they launched the popular initiative “For a real peasant agriculture”. “That does it” and “We want to remain farmers!” were their slogans. They represented traditional family farms that worked with fodder from their own farm. Only such farms should enjoy full agricultural protection, was their message. Animal factories, mass farms and the like, on the other hand, were not worthy of protection (demands that are still being made today). The Federal Council proposed to reject the initiative without a counterproposal on the grounds that its concerns were partly justified. However, the initiative was overshooting the mark, and parliament had already decided on measures.
  The vote was held on 24 June 1989. In the run-up to the vote, tempers ran high. Shortly before the ballot, the small farmers’ association withdrew from the Swiss Farmers’ Union (SBC) because it did not support their initiative. This split the farming community into two camps – a division that still has an impact today. There was great excitement when it became clear that the courageous action of the small and medium-sized farmers met with sympathy among the population. The close result was surprising: the initiative was rejected with a scant 51 per cent of the vote. However, a clear majority of the cantons rejected it. Despite the defeat, this was a major success for small and medium-sized farmers, and it was a clear signal to the authorities.
  During these years, two initiatives in the environmental field were accepted by the people: the initiative for the protection of the high moors (1987) and a little later (1994) the initiative for the protection of the Alps against excessive transit traffic. Both had been submitted not by political parties but by citizens’ movements, and both were intended to have a significant impact on policy.

Expert report: Paradigm shift on direct payments

In the meantime, the Federal Council had appointed a second expert commission chaired by Professor Hans Popp on the subject of direct payments. This commission presented a report in 1992: Farmers could no longer count on prices continuing to rise as they had in the past, it said. The milk price set by the federal government had risen from 80 centimes to over 1.10 Swiss francs between 1980 and 1990 – to compensate for inflation and within the framework of the parity wage (today: by 65 centimes). The dismantling of border protection within the framework of the coming WTO and the expected rapprochement with the EU would – according to Hans Popp – lead to falling prices in the future. However, the loss of income could be compensated for with direct payments that are independent of price and are based on area, number of animals or criteria such as integrated production IP or organic farming. Agriculture should become “multifunctional” in the future. In other words, it should contribute to a secure supply of food for the population, to the preservation of natural resources, to the maintenance of the cultural landscape and to the decentralised settlement of the country. The public services should no longer be compensated primarily through prices, but through direct payments.
  This revolutionary approach should be incorporated into a new constitutional article.

Further debates and referenda in the period leading up to the new constitutional article of 1996

After small farmers’ withdrawal from the umbrella organisation, the Swiss Farmers’ Union (SFU) tried to move off the defensive. As early as 1989, it launched the popular initiative “For an environmentally sound and efficient agriculture” and furthermore, it drafted a proposal for a new constitutional article. The farmers had been gathering more than 260,000 signatures in a relatively short period of time. Parliament addressed the concern raised by the SFU reacting in two ways: on the one hand, it drafted an own counter-proposal for the new constitutional article. On the other hand, it incorporated the main concern of the initiators into the ongoing reform of the Agriculture Act. The SFU was satisfied with the outcome of this process and withdrew its popular initiative.
  In the first half of the nineties, two further popular initiatives for a new constitutional article were submitted: on the one hand (1990) by the committee of WWF Switzerland and the Green Party (“Farmers and consumers – for an agriculture close to nature”) and on the other hand (1993) by the committee “Gnue Heu dune” (small farmers), which in its proposal aimed at protecting the interests of family farms more strongly.
  On 12 March 1995, three proposals on agriculture were put to the vote: Parliament’s counter-proposal to the withdrawn popular initiative of the Swiss Farmers’ Union, and two referenda on issues of milk quota and the financing of joint agricultural advertising campaigns (which the Association for the Protection of Small and Medium-Sized Farmers refused to support).
  The voters rejected all three proposals. The discomfort with official agricultural policy had increased. This might have been due to the BSE scandal smouldering in the background at the time.
  12 March 1995, however, was not the end of the debate. In the Federal Council’s bureau was an initiative of WWF Switzerland and the Green Party waiting to be put to the vote. It also submitted a proposal for a new constitutional article.
  1996: Yes to the agricultural article 31octies (Art 104 of the current Federal Constitution of 18 April 1999).
  The National Council and the Council of States proceeded as follows: They first one worked out a counter-proposal to the present popular initiative of WWF Switzerland and the Green Party. As a starting point they used the proposal they had drawn up themselves, which however, had been rejected by the people on March 12, 1995. They improved this draft so convincingly that WWF Switzerland and the Green Party withdrew their initiative, so that in the end the parliamentary proposal alone was put to the vote. The result surprised – this time positively: The people and all cantons very clearly approved it on 9 June 1996, with almost 78 per cent of the votes. There was great relief in Bern. The series of “nay” votes in the agricultural sector had come to an end. The text of the referendum of 9 June 1996, is included in the current Federal Constitution as Article 104.
  The electorate already approved paragraph 3d at that time, which states, “It [the federal government] shall protect the environment from degradation by excessive use of fertilizers, chemicals, and other adjuvants.”

Success also from a democratic point of view

The new constitutional article has been the result of several years of challenging interaction – by the people, the parliament with the responsible commissions and the Federal Council with the responsible federal office. Farmers with their associations, individual activists and citizens' movements, several initiative committees, political parties and various NGOs such as WWF Switzerland all contributed to this process.
  Whoever looks at the result from a political perspective will be impressed and will conclude that direct democracy has made the population highly aware of politics and agricultural issues. Indeed, there is hardly a broader base of support for politics. Direct democracy has succeeded in meeting the challenge and thus contributes to political stability and cohesion.

The debate about the structure of the direct payments starts

Two years later (1998), the popular initiative “For low-priced food and ecological farms” of the small and medium-sized farmers (VKMB), which they had already submitted in 1993, was also submitted to a vote. The small farmers opened the debate on the structure of the newly introduced direct payments. Only real farms – especially family farms – should enjoy full agricultural protection. This would require direct payments to be limited upward: “Farmers produce in a way that is close to nature and animal-friendly. If they meet this condition, they are entitled to direct payments to compensate for their performance, insofar as these are necessary to achieve an adequate income. However, direct payments should not exceed a maximum of 50,000 Swiss francs per farm.”
  For large farms, this would have been clearly insufficient. However, the starting position for this referendum was unfavourable for the initiators, as the sovereign had shortly before approved the new agricultural article by a large majority. The discussion about the structure of direct payments was still premature. Experience had yet to be gained. On 27 September 1998, the small farmers’ initiative was therefore clearly rejected by 77 per cent of the cantons.

On the system of direct payments

Today, the federal government spends about CHF 4.5 billion on agriculture every year. Whereas in the past about two-thirds was used to support prices, today it is about 20 per cent. In turn, federal expenditure on direct payments has risen to over 75 per cent.
  Today, direct payments are based on very different criteria: According to the area and according to the number of animals fed on grass or hay. There are special contributions for mountain farmers who farm in difficult terrain, as well as for near-natural, environmentally friendly or particularly animal-friendly production methods.
  Depending on how direct payments are structured, the development of agriculture can be steered. This was the starting point for other popular initiatives and for the two initiatives that will be put to the vote on 13 June 2021. At first, however, the issue of genetic engineering was in the foreground: agro-multinationals announced that they would genetically modify crops in such a way that the use of pesticides would become largely unnecessary – an argument they still use today. Resistance followed.

GMO-free agriculture

In 2003, a committee consisting of farmers, environmentalists and consumer protectionists launched a popular initiative “For food from GMO-free agriculture”. It actually wanted a ban. Since this was not legally possible because of the WTO, it stipulated that Swiss agriculture must remain GMO-free for five years after the adoption of the article (moratorium). The research sector was excluded from the ban.
  The Federal Council rejected the initiative. It was controversial in parliament. The Council of States clearly rejected it by 32 votes to 5. In the National Council, however, there was a tie, so that the President of the Council decided with her vote in favour of rejection. The people saw things differently and voted in favour by a clear majority on 27 November 2005. Since then, the GMO moratorium has been included in the transitional provisions of the constitution and in the law and has been extended several times by parliament – until 2021.

Fair food, food security, food sovereignty

In 2018, two popular initiatives and a counter-proposal by parliament were put to the vote. With its initiative, the Swiss Farmers’ Union SBC pursued the goal of stabilising the declining degree of self-sufficiency. Parliament drew up a counter-proposal – somewhat more restrained. The SBC withdrew the initiative and the parliamentary counter-proposal was accepted in the referendum with a relatively large majority. The initiative of the farmers’ union Uniterre persued a holistic approach that encompassed life on the farm, such as social security for the farmer’s wife and the like. An extensive, detailed catalogue of demands was intended to guarantee food sovereignty. The initiative was relatively clearly rejected by the sovereign.
  The Fair Food Initiative of the Greens demanded that the federal government promotes food from a near-natural and animal-friendly agriculture with fair working conditions. The strict regulations should also apply to imports, similar to the current pesticide initiative. It, too, was rejected by the sovereign.
  March 2021: Parliament passes law on the reduction of pesticides and fertilisers
  Swiss agriculture has changed massively in recent decades: More organic, more IP-Suisse, less synthetic chemical pesticides, strict regulations for animal husbandry, declining cow and pig populations, biodiversity, more consumer proximity. Thanks to direct democracy, we now have a high level of environmental protection and animal welfare in Switzerland – higher than in the EU, for example. The concepts of the drinking water and pesticide initiatives fit into the tradition of the agricultural policy of the last sixty years, which has been strongly influenced by the people.
  The National Council and the Council of States – as was often the case in the past – did not simply reject the two initiatives, but in the spring session of 2021 passed a “law for fewer risks from pesticides”, which amends the Chemicals Act, the Water Protection Act and the Agriculture Act (Federal Act of 19.3.2021). It is now stipulated that the risks associated with the use of pesticides for rivers and lakes, near-natural habitats and groundwater used as drinking water are to be reduced by 50 per cent by 2027. In addition, fertilisers (nitrogen and phosphorus) must be “adequately reduced” by 2030. No referendum is planned against this law. According to the media release of 18 March 2021, its provisions are intended to “take the wind out of the sails of the two popular petitions”. This is because Switzerland will receive the world’s most stringent pesticide law.
  On 13 June – as so often before – the sovereign will decide whether there should even be a complete ban on pesticides. The challenging issue of the pollution of health and the environment by synthetic chemical substances will remain in focus in any case – also thanks to direct democracy as we live it in Switzerland.  •


  • Linder, Wolf et al. Handbuch der eidgenössischen Volksabstimmungen 1848–2007 (Handbook of Federal Referenda 1848-2007). Bern 2010.
  • Popp, Hans. Das Jahrhundert der Agrarrevolution. Schweizerische Landwirtschaft und Agrarpolitik im 20. Jahrhundert (The Century of Agricultural Revolution. Swiss agriculture and agricultural policy in the 20th century). Bern 2000
  • Wüthrich, Werner. Wirtschaft und direkte Demokratie in der Schweiz; Geschichte der freiheitlich-demokratischen Wirtschaftsverfassung der Schweiz (Economy and direct democracy in Switzerland; history of the liberal-democratic economic constitution of Switzerland). Zurich 2020

What already applies today: High hurdles for farmers who want money from the federal government

cc. According to the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG), anyone claiming direct payments must “meet(s) the requirements of the ecological performance certificate (ÖLN) on the entire farm” (Ordinance on Direct Payments; DZV Art. 11).

“The proof of ecological performance includes:

  1. the keeping of livestock in accordance with animal welfare legislation (DZV Art. 12)
  2. a balanced manure balance (DZV Art. 13) [among other things, ‘the number of livestock shall be adapted to the location’]
  3. soil testing (DZV Art. 13) [on the individual plots, ‘to optimise the distribution of manure’]
  4. an appropriate proportion of biodiversity promotion areas (DZV Art. 14) [3.5 to 7 % of the utilised agricultural area].
  5. proper management of sites in inventories of national importance (Art. 15) [e.g. fenlands or amphibian spawning areas]
  6. regulated crop rotation (DZV Art. 16)
  7. appropriate soil protection (DZV Art. 17) [‘requirements for soil cover and erosion protection’]
  8. targeted selection and application of plant protection products (DZV Art. 18)" [for example ‘untreated control windows’ for fungicides in rape]
  9. specifications concerning seed and plant material (DZV Art. 19)
  10. requirements concerning special crops (Art. 20)
  11. requirements concerning buffer strips (Art. 21)”


The ecological performance record currently in force therefore already contains essential points of the two popular initiatives. In any case, the direct payments from the federal government are by no means easy money for Swiss farmers.

Article on agriculture in the Federal Constitution, adopted in the referendum of 9 June 1996*

(corresponds verbatim to today’s Article 104 FC)

FC Art. 31octies 42

  1. The Confederation shall ensure that agricultural sector, by means of a sustainable and market-oriented production policy, makes an essential contribution towards:
    1. the reliable provision of the population with foodstuffs;
    2. the conservation of natural resources and the upkeep of the countryside;
    3. decentralised population settlement of the country.
  2. In addition to the self-help measures that can reasonably be expected in the agriculture sector and if necessary, in derogation from the principle of economic freedom, the Confederation shall support farms that cultivate the land.
  3. The Confederation shall organise measures in such a manner that the agricultural sector fulfils its multi-functional duties. It has in particular the following powers and duties:
    1. supplementing revenues from agriculture by means of direct subsidies in order to achieve of fair and adequate remuneration for the services provided, subject to proof of compliance with ecological requirements;
    2. encouraging by means of economically advantageous incentives methods of production that are specifically near-natural and respectful of both the environment and livestock;
    3. legislating on declarations of origin, quality, production methods and processing procedures for foodstuffs;
    4. protecting the environment against the detrimental effects of the excessive use of fertilisers, chemicals and other auxiliary agents;
    5. at its discretion, encouraging agricultural research, counselling and education and subsidise investments;
    6. at its discretion, legislating on the consolidation of agricultural property holdings.
  4. For these purposes, the Confederation shall provide both funds earmarked for the agricultural sector and general federal funds.

* English is not an official language of the Swiss Confederation. This translation is provided for information purposes only and has no legal force.

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