Food security initiatives for the third time – let’s give it a chance!

People’s initiative “For food sovereignty. Farming affects all of us”

by Dr iur. Marianne WŁthrich

After the initiative of the Swiss Farmer’s Union “For food security”, which was withdrawn in favour of a completely different counter-proposal,1 a second one was handed in by the Green Party, the Fair-Food Initiative (item of business number: 16.073 “For healthy, environmentally friendly and fairly produced food”) and debated in the National Council in the autumn session. It rejected the initiative on 28 September with 125 to 37 votes and 23 abstentions; A counter-proposal did not find a majority either. The decision of the Council of States is still pending.
Now, the third popular initiative on food and farming in the winter session is on the agenda of the National Council, which will treat it as the first chamber on 5 and 7 December.


National Council on 7 December:
 Yes to the counter-proposal to the popular initiative
 “For food sovereignty”?

mw. Explanation: The counter-proposal of the commission minority fits very well to the critical appraisal of the initiative text through the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee EATC-N (Press release from 15 November 2017):


  • The aim of the initiative: “It seeks an alignment of the agricultural policy to a small-scale, on the regional supply oriented agriculture and for that wants to anchor numerous measures in the Federal Constitution.”

  • Positive points: “Different members of the committee regard some points addressed by the initiative quite important, for example the strengthening of local production, the concern for cultural land conservation and the promotion of a GMO (genetical unmodifieed)-free agriculture.”
  • 
Too far-reaching: “Other points, like for example, a state price and quantity control and the proposed import restrictions are too far-reaching from the view of the committee.“

  • Appreciation of the counter-proposal: “There was a request for a direct counter-proposal that renounced these strong restrictive elements and put measures to strengthen a local production at the centre.”
(Emphasis mw)


(See press release of the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee of the National Council EATC-N from 15 November 2017)
***

mw. Despite this positive characterisation of the counter-proposal, on 7 December, the National Council unfortunately rejected it and recommended to reject the initiative, too. It is now up to the Council of States, to pick it up again.

Text of the committee‘s minority counter-proposal:

The Federal Constitution is amended as follows:

Art. 104 let. g - k food

g.    It ensures the rights of farmers on use, reproduction, exchange and marketing of seed.

h.    It can work towards strengthening the market power of the producers of agricultural raw materials against upstream and downstream market participants.

i.    It can strengthen the direct trade between the farmers and consumers as well as the regional and local processing, storage and marketing structures.

j.    It makes sure that local and industry-standard working conditions apply to agricultural employees.
k.    It outlaws trade and use of genetically modified plants and animals in the Swiss agriculture for commercial purposes.
(Translation Current Concerns)

The initiative “For food sovereignty. Farming affects all of us” issued by Uniterre, a farmers trade union, (item of business No: 17.023) includes similar aims as the Fair-Food Initiative.2 Both are much more detailed and to the point compared to the earlier withdrawn initiative of the Farmers’ Union, but opponents are partly using the same arguments. However, the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee of the National Council (EATC-N) was sympathetic to the cause in its press release on 15 November 2017, and expressed what the initiative involved. It cannot be acceptable that we endanger the existence of our farms by promoting the import of cheap food with agricultural agreements. Those products often do not comply with the strict legal requirements as given by the Swiss citizens concerning health, animal and environmental protection and are produced under conditions not even fulfilling the minimum requirements for decent humane working conditions.

The aim of the Committee of the Council of States to bring all three initiatives down at the ballot box, is to be revised

Looking back a year, the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee of the Council of States (EATC-S) drafted a counter-proposal on the first initiative “For food security”, with the declared aim of inducing the initiators to withdraw their popular initiative – which was successful. However, the EATC-S had something else in mind, too: “In addition, the counter-proposal […] should, if possible, take over the majority of the scope of the Fair-Food Initiative and the people’s initiative ‘For food sovereignty’ “in order to provide a better starting point for tackling these two initiatives.” [emphasis by mw]3
However, the EATC-N and the National Council also appreciate significant positive arguments in favour of the two initiatives. The members of the Committee of the Council of States and the Council of States are invited to include them in their further debate.

Progression of parliamentary work until end of October 2017

  • 17 May 2017: A majority of the Committee of the National Council recommends rejecting the Fair-Food initiative (as before the Federal Council on 26 October 2016). However, the initiative will not be dealt with by the council in the next session as usual, in this case in the summer session, but only after the referendum on food security on 24 September.
  • 17 May 2017: In the same session the EATC-N has also the third initiative on the agenda, the “people’s initiative “For food sovereignty. Farming affects all of us.” It has already carried out a hearing of various lobbying groups, but it also postpones further work until after the vote.
  • Referendum of 24 September 2017: The counter-proposal on the food security initiative is clearly adopted by the sovereign because of an unprecedented deception campaign (“For domestic production” …) whilst simultaneously downplaying the market opening as planned by the Federal Council for agricultural products.
  • 26/28 September 2017: Two days later, the Green Party’s Fair-Food initiative is on the tables of the National Council members and is rejected two days later – in this case quite rapidly! – Amongst others with a justification that after the “Yes” to food security, there is no need for adding a further constitutional article …
  • 18 October 2017: Press release of the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee of the Council of States (EATC-S) on the Fair-Food Initiative: Firstly it wants to carry out various hearings and shifts the debate to the 1st quarter 2018. This means that the committee is awaiting the decision of the National Council on the third initiative “For food sovereignty. Farming affects all of us” which has happened on 7 December 2017.

Time for reflection: what kind of agriculture suits small-scale Switzerland?

On 1 November 2017, the Federal Council came in with its “synopsis on the further development of agricultural policy”. With the AP 22 +, among other things, “the domestic and foreign agricultural markets should be better interlinked within a framework of trade agreements”. In a “discussion paper”, the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) will show “the cost-cutting effects of possible market opening in the framework of bilateral trade agreements” ; in the autumn of 2018, the Federal Council intends to conduct a consultation on AP 22 +.
Although Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann had already publicly declared the same intentions before the vote of 24 September4 (agricultural trade agreements with other states and in particular with the EU as well as lowering the direct support schemes for the Swiss farmers). But their reaffirmation in the midst of the parliamentary debate of the two other nutritional initiatives caused many National Council members to pause and reflect, which agricultural policy is sensible and needed for the small-scale and quality oriented, sustainable agricultural production in Switzerland.
Two weeks later, on 15 November, the EATC of the National Council said, as planned, “no” to the third initiative “For food sovereignty. Farming affects all of us”, among other things with the “justification”, that after the “yes” to food security there is no need to add a further constitutional article… But: it was a most unusual “no”, with only 7 no-votes versus 0 “yes” with 15 abstentions! “15 members of the committee deliberately abstained and wanted to express their disappointment concerning the synopsis on the further development of agricultural policy presented by the Federal Council on 1 November 2017.” (Press release of the committee 15 November 2017)     •

1    The counter-proposal was adopted by the sovereign in the referendum of 24 September 2017; “Food security must be ensured. No to the counter-/contrary proposal “Food security”. Current Concerns No 19 of 15 August 2017
2    The rather comprehensive text of the initiative can be found (in addition to the fair-food initiative) in Current Concerns No 14 of 30 June 2016
3    Report of the EATC-S of 3 November 2016, p. 8/9; cf. “Popular initiative “For food security” , cf. No “walls up policy”, but a commandment of the hour – not only for Switzerland”. Current Concerns No 28 of 13 December 2016
4    cf. Current Concerns No 19 of 15 August 2017

Recommendation to the Council of States for 2018: Counter-draft – Bridge to the Fair-Food Initiative

Most of the speakers in the National Council on 26 and 28 September 2017 praised the various concerns expressed by the initiators, but many found the controls provided for in the initiative text to be too complex. “The initiative ‘For healthy, environmentally friendly and fairly produced foods‘ aims to protect the high Swiss food standards and demands ecological and social standards for imported products. In this way, the initiators want to prevent products from industrial mass production from entering the Swiss market.” (sda report on the National Council debate of 26 September 2017)
The main argument against the initiative was once again the prevention of trade agreements involving agricultural trade. It is certainly possible – and in the interests of ensuring the best possible self-sufficiency – to conclude agreements with the exclusion of agricultural products in the future as well.
To build a bridge that would also satisfy the initiators of the Green Party, a minority of the commission around Beat Jans (SP Basel-Stadt) also tried with a counter-draft that would reward the import of sustainably produced foodstuffs with lower customs duties instead of imposing import bans. Unfortunately, this counter-proposal was also rejected by the National Council.

Wording of the counter-draft of the Committee’s minority:

The Federal Constitution is amended as follows:
Art. 104a Food
1    The Confederation strengthens the supply of foodstuffs of good quality and safety which are produced in an environmentally friendly, resource-saving, animal-friendly manner and under fair working conditions.
2    It shall favour imported products which meet the requirements of paragraph 1 and originate from fair trade and agricultural land management holdings.
3    It shall ensure that the negative effects of transport and storage of food and feed on the environment, climate and animal welfare are reduced.
***
The Council of States and its Committee have the freedom to include this proposal in their discussions and decisions on the Fair-Food Initiative.

“Uniterre“ and “Alliance for food sovereignty“ on agricultural policy

„The overall view of the Federal Council shows the deep gap between words and deeds in agricultural policy. This overall view has strongly influenced the debate within the EATC-N, as 15 members of parliament (a majority) have decided to abstain from voting on the food sovereignty initiative as a result of J. Schneider-Ammann‘s recent proposals. […]
More open borders and free trade agreements run counter to a domestic, multi-faceted and sustainable agricultural economy for which we are clearly committed. As the world‘s largest net importer of foodstuffs, it is essential to maintain flexible border protection. This aspect must also be reflected in agricultural policy 22+.“

Press release of the “Uniterre” and “Alliance for food sovereignty” of 16 November 2017

(Translation Current Concerns)