Food security must be ensured!

Federal referendum of 24 September, 2017

No to the counter-/contrary proposal «Food security»

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

Strange and at first glance non-transparent procedures are currently going on around the constitutional article on food security coming to vote in two months. On 14 March 2017, the Parliament rejected the initiative “For food security” of the Swiss Farmers’ Union and agreed to the direct counterproposal of the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee (EATC) of the Council of States.  Then, the Swiss Farmers’ Union withdrew its initiative. Therefore, on 24 September the sovereign can decide only the counterproposal which shall newly be introduced as article 104a into the Federal Constitution (FC).

First question: Why did the Swiss Farmers’ Union withdraw its initiative? The fact that it has been signed by 150,000 voters in a few months shows the ties of wider population with the Swiss agriculture, but also the desire to promote the production of local, healthy and sustainably-produced food. Does the counterproposal which is now alone proposed for the vote, meet these demands?
Second question: Currently a mixed society of various political provenance along with the Farmers’ Union campaigns for the new Article 104a, with a variety of “arguments” which directly contradict each other in part. Should we citizens agree to an agriculture article, of which the content can be interpreted differently depending on the political climate?
Third question: The only one who says clearly how he sees the future agricultural policy is for once the Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, head of the Swiss Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. What can we set against the plans of the classe politique? Or in other words: What to do to stop the extinction of the farm stand and the mass import of substandard food?
Despite all these questions, there is so far no No-Committee: A “ballot without rival” headlines the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” (7 July 2017). Looking for opposing votes I’ve encountered fortunately some active Swiss farm women (see box). It is time that we make informed citizens. Because on 24 September, it is not just about a Yes or No to the counterproposal. It is also about preparing the ground for two other very worthy popular initiatives which pursue similar goals such as the withdrawn initiative of the Farmers’ Union: “For food sovereignty. Agriculture affects all of us” by Uniterre and “For healthy and environmentally friendly and fair produced food (Fair–Food–Initiative)” of the Green Party of Switzerland. These initiatives have both been submitted successfully and will come to vote at a later date.

Little arguments and much hot air in the pro campaign

Comparing the proposed article 104a FC with the initiative’s text, one can find an only – however important – content match: The Confederation should take action against the loss of cultivated land (the agricultural used grounds and surfaces). The core of the initiative, the strengthening of the domestic production of food or a high degree of self-sufficiency does not occur in the counter-proposal.
Text of the vote:

The Federal Constitution is amended as follows:
Article 104a food security
To ensure the supply of the population with food, the Confederation creates the conditions for:
a.    securing the basis for agricultural production, in particular the cultivated land;
b.    a site-adapted and resource-efficient food production;
c.    a market-oriented agriculture and food sector;
d.    cross-border trade relations which contribute to the sustainable development of the agricultural and food sector;
e.    a resource-friendly handling of food.

The heads of the SFU (Swiss Farmer’s Union) now claim that their concerns from the initiative were “taken up 80 per cent in the counter-proposal” (Markus Ritter, National Council CVP and President of the SFU, in the “Bund” of 14 July 2017), an unparalleled exaggeration. At a media conference, organised by SFU, together with representatives of other agricultural associations as well as the Green Party (GP) and the SVP, the voting slogan program “Yes to food security” was issued in fine words and a “broad support” was announced. The GP parliamentary group favours the proposal even with the audacious statement that the counter-proposal would “set the ground for our own Fair Food Initiative”2. We would grant the Greens it. But does it work out? In essence, the statements of 6 July mostly remain empty rhetoric. In any case, many peasants, as well as numerous other citizens who have signed the initiative, rightly do not feel represented by this side change of the initiative committee.

Serious substantive objections of Uniterre

The Uniterre, the author of the initiative “Für Ernährungssouveränität. Die Landwirtschaft betrifft uns alle“ (“For food sovereignty. Agriculture affects us all”), criticises key points of the counter-proposal.3 Firstly, peasants are to be “the centrepiece of the food system, instead letter c) centres the market. Thus, the market will also set the price and quantity specifications. Secondly, letter d) introduces the concept of ‘international agricultural markets’ for the first time into the Constitution. Even if it is linked to sustainability, this still remains highly risky. […] Thirdly, an interesting aspect of the initiative of the Swiss Farmers’ Union in the counter-draft has totally disappeared: ‘It [the Confederation] ensures that [...] legal certainty and adequate investment security are ensured.’”
(However, the peasants are only entitled to this legal certainty if the agricultural policy of the Confederation is on the whole within a reasonable framework, which is foreseeable to them.)
Despite these serious concerns, the General Assembly of Uniterre decided not to recommend a certain vote for or against the “Food Security” on 20 June 2017, because their members do not want to “stand against another farmers’ association”. At the same time, Uniterre notes, “that this is only a stage goal, to an even more ambitious goal: ensuring food sovereignty [means their own initiative, mw] in the constitution.” Let us hope!

“Federal Berne” plays Nine Men’s Morris with the peasants and with the Swiss voters

In fact, the executive committee of the Farmers’ Union was put into a predicament by the parliamentary counter-proposal: if the initiative had been rejected and the counter-draft had been adopted, this would have been very unfavourable. Nevertheless, the SFU should not have withdrawn the broadly supported initiative, and certainly it should not make itself strong for the counter-proposal. The advocates of an open agricultural market and, in particular, an agricultural agreement with the EU, are also in favour of a “yes”, with a declaration of war against the SFU to “not let the interpretive sovereignty”. The “cross-border openness” must be understood as a “rejection of protectionism and foreclosure”. Representatives of the SFU and the SVP, on the other hand, are clinging to a, now performing a volte-face (!), statement by Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann in the Parliament, according to which “cross-border trade” does not necessarily mean agricultural free trade agreements.4
For the absurdity of the separation-reproach see box “We do not need palm oil from Indonesia and no dairy products from the EU”.
The Swiss farmers’ have a hard furrow to plough and are confronted with a lot of rough headwind. But it is to be feared that their plan – rather the unfavourable counter-draft than nothing – will not work out. Shall we voters get ourselves into such a Nine Men’s Morris game? Rather not!

Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann reveals his goals

Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann frankly reveals where he is heading with this counter-draft: Integration of the Swiss economy into the EU’s internal market, including the opening of the Swiss agricultural market. Of course he knows exactly, that Swiss agriculture would not be able to cope with this. His sayings (“a tractor and a plough are enough for the double surface”) are an imposition not only for the farmers in mountain regions, but for every citizen who is concerned with the preservation of our peasantry and thus with the highest possible level of self-sufficiency with high quality, healthy, and sustainable food.
A few statements by Schneider-Ammann from an interview in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”5 (Highlighted by mw):

  •  “The step towards open markets on the one hand aches agriculture, but it does not threaten its existence per se. […] The next step in this direction is the vote on 24 September.”
  • “It is new [in the draft, mw] that cross-border trade becomes self-evident. The initiative would have been a step back, and it would have increasingly blocked the country. [...] This closure was to be prevented. We must be able to shape our trade relations successfully; agriculture must also make concessions and face increasing competition.”
  • “It is certainly not correct to interpret it that way, that the counter-proposal cements the border protection and additionally protects the internal market.”
  • “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”: “Sooner or later, the level of direct support schemes has to drop?” “Yes, there is no help for it. However, if we help the farmer to cut costs, he can also make with lower direct support schemes. [...] Direct support schemes and declining border protection must be considered as a whole.”[...]
  •  “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”: “How can the costs be reduced?” “Bigger structures and fewer farms are needed. For example, by merging the farms during the generations change. After that only one tractor for the double agricultural area is needed and only one plow for agricultural area that has previously been processed by two farmers. You have to create synergies. This adjustment process is underway, but it will take a while.”[...]
  • “The reduction of subsidies is, however, a long-term exercise and only gradually realisable. [...] I am gradually breaking this market opening gently to the farmers.” [...] “The process of reconstruction in which we find ourselves is more effective if it is made socially compatible and the peasants do not take to the street with the pitchfork, as we have seen elsewhere in Europe.”            •

1    For the background and the contents of the People’s Initiative and the Counter-daft cf. Popular initiative “For Food Security”. In: Current Concerns no. 28 from 13 December 2016
2    “Ein Ja ist ein Versprechen an uns Junge“ (“A yes is a promise to us young”. In: Schweizer Bauer from 8 July 2017
3    “Ernährungssicherheit kommt am 24. September vors Volk“ (“On 24 September, ‘Food Security’ will come before the people.” Statement of 20 June 2017, published in: Uniterre Zeitung. June 2017
4     “Befürworter gegen Befürworter” (“Proponents against proponents”). In: “Wiler Zeitung” of 22 July 2017
5     “Bauern stehen nicht unter Heimatschutz“, (“Farmers are not under the homeland security”), in: “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, 8 July 2017

We do not need any palm oil from Indonesia and no dairy products from the EU

Letter to the editor by Monika Gerlach, Renan BE, in : Schweizer Bauer 8 July 2017

“We import soybeans from South America, avocados from Israel and dates from Mexico, hard wheat for our pasta from Italy, olives from Greece, etc. We do not want to do without that. But we do not need any palm oil from Indonesia or Malaysia because we can grow rapeseed ourselves, we do not need any cheap cheese or cheap milk from the EU, because we are predestined to keep dairy cows because of the geographical location. Pears from South Africa are also superfluous.
We do not want to have asparagus from Egypt or early potatoes from North Africa in February, before the first Swiss new potatoes are taken from the soil. Those who advocate free trade do so in the interest of the economy, the service sector and the investment policy. The farmers are sacrificed because their share of the gross domestic product is only a meager 0.8%. If we allow this peasant sacrifice, we are fully in the hands of those whose food we will depend on in the future. [...]”

The alarm bells have to shrill now

Letter to the editor by Ulrike Minkner, Mont Soleil BE, in Schweizer Bauer  of 5 July 2017 (excerpt)

“In contradiction to the quotation from the Council debate [of 7 March 2017, where Federal Councilor Schneider-Ammann has affirmed, the cross-border trade in the counter-proposal was only thought as a supplement to the inlandproduction)  the Federal Council’s press conference of June 9, 2017, entitled ‘The Federal Council is pursuing the aim of opening up new markets through the dismantling of the border protection for agricultural products and other free trade agreements between industry and the service sector .’ The alarm bells must shrill now.
If the counter-proposal comes, the Federal Council has the free pass for its neoliberal policy, and we will have longer-terms even bigger problems in the local agriculture. I can’t understand why the initiators are getting into this deal. [...] `
With the adoption of the Fair Food Initiative by the Greens and the Food Sovereignty Initiative of Uniterre, we could at least  slow down Federal Councilor Schneider-Ammann, and the Federal Council should finally consider a sustainable dietary policy together with an ecological footprint and health issues.”
mw. By the way, the Swiss export industry is not so bad when one reads the economics in the newspapers ...
(Translation Current Concerns)