Agricultural policy must not be reduced to competition and open borders

by Reinhard Koradi

In some sectors open borders might bring benefits for both providers and consumers. After all, international economic relations are the result of different resource deposits, production conditions, but also production capacities. From this perspective, the free market access is definitely to be considered as a progress. However, the wars for resources show only too clearly that the free market often has to give way to the rule of the strongest. Markets are truly free only if equity, fairness and transparency are unconditionally in place. Free market economy necessarily should include the freedom to decide as a sovereign state autonomously on participation and the extent of liberalisation and deregulation. The accusation “cherry picking” is likely to immediately come up; but if the right were exercised by each side to protect the interests of the citizens as a sovereign state, then the “cherry-picking” can simply be rejected by the other side.

Free trade undermines national sovereignty

There are several reasons that sabotage the terms of effective free market. One of the main causes is the violation of national sovereignty. The all-encompassing (economic) regime by WTO, IMF, World Bank and OECD is burdened by serious shortcomings. What comes in addition to partisanship is mainly the lack of willingness to think and act in a differentiated way. The deliberate suppression of different starting points and basic conditions as well as the claim to infallibility violate the self-determination of sovereign states. In this respect, the pendent transnational agreements (TTIP, TiSA) are to be classified as critical. If they ever enter into force, the nation states and thus their governments go further in the dependence of commercial interests of transnational corporations. With the conclusion of such agreements the political bodies and authorities subordinate the autonomy of their states to the global, selfish and power-oriented targets of a financially strong minority. Politics thus lose their independence and is in danger to be fully taken into the service of the self-interest of high finance.
Corresponding adjustments are urgently needed, i.e. the states must increasingly insist on their self-determination and vigorously oppose the autocratic rule of corporate bosses and (economic) lobbyists. In accordance with the specific needs of the countries and the local population it is necessary to break through and if necessary to cancel globally arranged contractual terms and obligations. It would be an alternative to consider the conclusion of appropriate agreements between two sovereign parties or the personal contribution by self-directed work and acting.

Democratic control and solidarity under pressure

This is especially true when it comes to provision with basic supplies. It is the “public sector” that is responsible for an optimal basic supply. In Switzerland these are the federal government, the cantons and the municipalities. Through the discussions around deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation, competitiveness and public management the ensured supply of essential goods and services has taken significant damage. More and more, the dogma prevailed that the state is inefficient, competition promotes prosperity and the free market is the most efficient market regulator. The counter-argument is that an infrastructure established and maintained by the public sector ensures a solid guarantee for the security of supply, reliability, high quality and equal opportunities and thus contributes significantly to the attractiveness of a country or region. Through the commercialisation of public duties (energy, water, transport, education, health, administration and security), the very efficient militia system, the valuable voluntary work is undermined in many areas of activity. The democratic control over these existential tasks of care is lost, and the solidarity within the population is oppressed by the prevalent competitive thinking.

Agriculture as reinsurance

For basic supply a productive agriculture is essential. For decades, this importance of a secure basic supply has been neglected and a patchy agricultural policy – reduced to competition and open borders – has been pursued; by the way cleverly masquerading for mainstream acceptance in an ecological guise. The fact is that this policy can neither meet the requirements of a national policy, nor those of safety, social or economic policy demands.
The result of this policy is that the farmers, not only in Switzerland, fight for their existence and are thereby also suspicious of one other. The current agricultural policy blanks out the supply policy and therefore the infrastructure-sustaining facts of domestic food production and mutates the longer the more into a lab of neo-liberal field trials. The farmers are gradually getting into a threatening existential crisis. They find themselves between hammer and anvil. On the one hand the production cost increase, in particular because of the growing number of production and quality requirements and the corresponding control effort. On the other hand – politically intended – prices for their products are constantly falling. By politically promoted structural “improvements” farmers are pushed into an investment trap. Smaller operating units lose their livelihoods as a result of falling incomes and are forced into termination of their enterprise or into operational extensions with corresponding investments. The resulting increase in production volumes fuels the fall in prices. The downward spiral continues and accelerates the thinning of the producing farms very dangerously in terms of supply policy. This process continues and leads in the final result to the industrialisation of agriculture – also in Switzerland. Industrialisation may be unappetising. However, what is a lot more serious, is the loss of food sovereignty in our country and the many serious personal fates of the affected farmers. As a justification of this policy buzzwords like competitiveness or lower prices for food in Switzerland come to the fore. But, the political explosiveness of this way of steering agriculture remains under the carpet: Destabilising the security of supply, dependence on foreign countries, the loss of very valuable jobs and the abandonment of self-determination over food production and consumption. In addition, the question of who ultimately generates the efficiency gains, remains unanswered. Though often invoked, it is definitely not the consumers.
Change is hardly coming along. Unless the citizens seriously face up to the scenario that one day the plates on the dinner tables will simply remain empty because there is no longer any food produced in Switzerland, imports from abroad have stopped due to political “discrepancies” and perhaps quite simply because of the lack of purchasing power. Because the concentration in agriculture does not end with the farmers. Upstream and downstream sectors are suffering from this policy as well and find themselves in the same scenario of structural changes, which will consequently put Switzerland as a workplace at risk with a considerable number of related jobs.

Rethinking in sight?

The United Nations declared 2014 the Year of family farms and 2015 the International Year of the Soil. With this declaration the attention was to be directed towards the importance of soil, biodiversity, food security, agriculture and other important, partly unknown significant factors of the soil. Various federal agencies, representatives of trade and industry organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are carrying out various activities in Switzerland which address the topic of soil and its importance.
The insight that soil is a very precious and finite good forces us to carefully and responsibly deal with this dwindling basis of all economic activities. The balance between use and protection of the natural resource soil therefore places very high demands on the relevant actors at all levels. Particularly, the farmers are called up, as they know very well about the importance of the soil as their foundation for living. We can therefore rely on their knowledge, experience and care very well. But the arable land is increasingly under pressure. The urbanisation (housing projects), recreation areas, re-naturalisation of river beds and lake shores as well as environmental protection are often pitted against the production of agricultural goods. Here, most likely commercial interests play a much greater role than the pleaded ideological values. In a sustainable and modern agricultural policy, the balance between production and the ecological balance must be sought and found. It is not right to pit ecology against the subsistence food production in our country.
During the International Year of the Soil the national sovereignty on land use needs to be addressed. The disposal of the national resources – and that includes necessarily the land – must remain sacrosanct and respected.
The soil with all its natural treasures needs to be treated and declared as the basis of life for the people in the respective countries. Therefore it can never be treated as a normal “commodity” and object of speculation or even misuse. The purchases of fertile farmland (land-grabbing) in less developed countries by international investors and rich countries must be stopped. Instead of buying land in foreign countries, it is important to carefully use their own resources and develop self-subsistence by means of domestic production and targeted measures.

More personal responsibility in Switzerland

More and more people realize the importance of self-subsistence for the internal stability and the sovereignty of a nation. Various referendums are in the pipeline. All initiatives call for a strengthening of self-subsistence with respect to domestic food. Both, the Swiss Farmers’ Association as well as Uniterre and the Greens express their steadily increasing uneasiness about the current agricultural policy in our country. The overwhelming number of citizens’ signatures also confirms that this discomfort increasingly spreads among the whole population as well.
The request of National Councillor Ernst Schibli addressed at the Federal Council must be regarded in the same context: “Although Switzerland has the lowest rate of self-subsistence in Europe, the Swiss policy of the Federation is geared towards an even stronger extensification. Actually, due to domestic and foreign facts the opposite should be the case.”
He put the question to the Federal Council whether it can recognize the close relationship between the producing agriculture and the upstream and downstream industries to maintain diverse, adequate domestic food supplies. He further asked about the willingness of the cantonal governments to put framework conditions in place in such a way that the actors along the whole value creating chain have a real perspective to fulfill their mandate in commercially viable structures in the long term. In addition, National Councillor Schibli also asked for a commitment of the Federal Council to an adequate supply of high-quality local food.
As of today, the response of the Federal Council is pendant. However, the signs emerging in the population clearly underline the urgency and importance of the raised concerns.

It is up to us

The basis for the Swiss agricultural policy of agricultural products is established in the Federal Constitution (Article 104):
1.    The Confederation shall ensure that agriculture makes a significant contribution through sustainable and market-oriented production, to:
a.    secure supply of the population;
b.    conservation of natural resources and maintenance of the cultural landscape;
c.    decentralised settlements of the country.
The Swiss citizens are called upon to use their political rights to demand the implementation of Article 104; for a modern and sustainable (in the sense of preserving the productive capacity) agricultural policy includes necessarily the protection and promotion of existing production and supply structures. Appropriate legal measures and regulations are to guarantee agriculture and farmers a reliable and long-term oriented base of existence. The current “reforms” prevent a long-term operational planning and management of farms and impose a considerable risk in succession planning. It must be demanded also that all, in some cases some trivialized, instruments (such as control of direct payments, taxation basis and their application) are scrapped, which ultimately only serve the purpose of “structural improvements” leading to even larger farmers’ death.
We have to say goodbye to the “fair-weather policy” and think in differentiated crisis scenarios. Only in this way is it possible to put the real importance of agriculture for our political independence and security of supply back into perspective and to promote the willingness to provide the necessary “risk premium” for a wide structural policy for food security in our country.
We still have the time.
One bright spot is the widespread rejection of the counter-proposal by the Federal Council on the “Food Security” initiative by the Swiss Farmers’ Union. The Federal Council turned the concern of the initiators around at 180 degrees. Instead of giving the Swiss farming families a perspective and protecting the farm land and the supply of the Swiss population with local food, the Federal Council’s proposal propagated access to agricultural free trade. Such a re-interpretation of a federal popular initiative was not savored by the participants in the consultation on the counter-proposal.
A first opportunity to strengthen local agriculture now opens up to the voters by the popular initiative on food security. Let us take this opportunity to steer the agricultural policy in our country into a future-proof and trustworthy – considered from the supply perspective – political direction.     •