“No new state control instruments, but implementation of the existing regulations!

Interview with Rudi Berli, organic farmer, member of the initiative committee for Food Sovereignty, co-director of the Uniterre farmers’ union

Current Concerns: Mr Berli, the initiative calls for fair prices for agricultural products (paragraph 5b). How can the Confederation support farmers in negotiating better contracts with Migros and Coop?

Self-help in the private sector needs a state framework

Rudi Berli: The possibilities currently in force are set out in Articles 8 and 9 of the Agriculture Act (AgricA).1 The purpose of this Act is to facilitate self-help on the market for producers. According to Art. 8 (1), producers may form self-help organisations in order to adapt supply to demand. The Confederation can support such agreements by making them generally binding, such as to date for the SMP (Association of Swiss Milk Producers). This means that non-members are obliged to contribute to the financing of these self-help measures (Art. 9 para. 2).

Does “adjustment of supply” mean milk quotas, for example?

Not quite. The buyers would have to give the individual producers a purchase guarantee for a certain quantity at a certain price. Of course, everyone is free to produce more. But provoking and encouraging overproduction in order to push down prices should not be allowed.

What is the difference to the milk quotas of the past?

Milk quotas were a state-guided purchase guarantee. Those who produced too much were punished (fined). And the quotas were traded, and we were against that. We demand private control, but the framework, the binding declaration of the contracts must be given by the state.

Confederation should support only democratic organisations: one producer – one voice

What else is already law today but not implemented by the Confederation?

According to Art. 9 AgricA, self-help organisations must already be “representative” today – a very important point – i.e. they must have a democratic basis. According to our initiative (paragraph 5a), this must be “farming organisations”, i.e. they may not be active in trade or processing. This is actually already spelled out in the existing law (AgricA Art. 9 para. 1b), but it is not implemented. For example, the SMP (Association of Swiss Milk Producers) is in reality not a farming organisation, but a mixture of various interests and conflicts of interest. Processors, sellers and producers sit on the board of directors and in the management, and most of them are everything at the same time. It doesn’t work that way, they have no interest in setting up quantity control according to demand and thus enabling good added value. The dairy industry is a very important sector, affecting half of the Swiss farms.
We do not want a planned economy, but a democratisation. In our view, a representative organisation must function according to the principle of one producer – one voice, with individual members, not structures with entire associations that lead to conflicts of interest. The Confederation can also determine that it only supports organisations in which democratic conditions prevail.

Not a contradiction to international treaties, but maneuvering room upwards for the Federal Council

Paragraph 7 of the initiative makes the following demand: “In order to maintain and promote domestic production, the Confederation shall levy customs duties on the import of agricultural products and foodstuffs as well as regulate their import volume.” Isn’t this contrary to the regulations of the WTO or others of Switzerland’s international treaties?

No, not at all; this is also already mandatory today. The Federal Council sets threshold prices (AgricA Art. 20 para. 1 ). The threshold price is the target import price, which is made up of the world market price, the customs surcharge and other levies (Art. 20 Para. 2). This is a political instrument. The threshold price for animal feed, for example, has been set so low by the Federal Council that in-house production is no longer worthwhile, with only a 10% Swissness surcharge on world market prices. This could be changed quite easily. It is like determining Swiss wages on the basis of average world wages plus a 10 per cent surcharge.

So Switzerland still has a relatively large degree of freedom today, despite the WTO and other agreements?

There are duty-free quotas for cereals in accordance with WTO.2 The rest goes over the threshold prices.

Quality controls at the border should be intensified

In paragraph 8, the initiative calls for an increase in customs duties or even an import ban for products that do not comply with Swiss standards. Are the opponents of the initiative not partly right about the fact that it would be quite complicated to check the quality of products at the border?

A great deal is already being checked today, not just the quantities. Quality must also be declared, whether it is organic wheat from Argentina or soya from Brazil …

Are products declared as organic also examined as to whether they really are organic?

Yes, in relation to GMOs (genetically modified organisms). A lot of GMO-free feedstuff is imported. Agroscope (Swiss Federal Centre for Agriculture, Food and the Environment) carries out spot checks on soya.

Import bans are also no invention of the initiators

Yes, we voted on that: No use of genetic engineering in agriculture. So GMO feedstuff will not be allowed in?

No. Imported animal feed must be GMO-free, apart from minor contamination. But finished products such as mozzarella from Italy may contain GMOs.
So the initiative’s demand in paragraph 8 – the Confederation can ban the import of agricultural products if they do not meet Swiss standards – is nothing new either.

Thank you very much, Mr Berli, for your explanations.    •

(Interview: Marianne Wüthrich)

1    Bundesgesetz über die Landwirtschaft (Landwirtschaftsgesetz, LwG) – Federal Act on Agriculture (Agriculture Act, LwG) of 29 April 1998 (as at 1 January 2018)
2    LwG Art. 21 on tariff quotas points to the Customs Tariff Act of 9 October 1986.

Trade agreements may not be adhesion contracts. Example USA/EU

“According to the decision of the WTO arbitration court, the EU must pay annual fines in the tens of millions to the USA, because the cultivation of GMO plants is not permitted in the EU, and these measures are declared to be competition-distorting. This imposes a massive restriction on sovereignty. Such agreements are not trade agreements, but political adhesion agreements. In the name of “trade”, something is imposed that has nothing to do with trade. Two partners are involved in trade, and if one does not agree with the quality of the product, he can say: No, thank you! Why should I be obliged to accept such junk goods?
Trade contracts with foreign countries have to be looked at carefully: What exactly is being negotiated? You cannot just call it “free trade”; that is dangerous. You have to be clear about which sectors of the economy are liberalised or deregulated, and under what conditions. Otherwise, there is a deficiency in the community’s democratic decision-making rights.”

Rudi Berli

(Translation Current Concerns)