The global market must not destroy our food security and our rural agriculture

Initiative for Food Sovereignty: substantive arguments

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

On 23 September we will vote on the initiative for Food Sovereignty. It demands the Swiss agriculture policy to be directed towards diverse, small-scale farms and GMO-free agriculture. According to a survey a few weeks ago, some 75% of respondents wanted to vote in favour of the initiative or tended to do so. But the proponents must not rest in view of this welcome response.
Just in time – two weeks before the voting Sunday – the think tank Avenir Suisse comes along and claims, agriculture would cost the state and the consumers some 20 billion Swiss francs per annum (Daily press from 8 September 2018). To fully understand this campaign, one has to consider Avenir Suisse being the voice of large corporations. Their heads would prefer Switzerland to join the EU sooner rather than later. Those, however, who are in favour of preserving Swiss agriculture and the highest possible degree of food sovereignty, as the majority of the Swiss population does, won’t be deterred from their own point of view.
We stick to factual information for voters and thus report on relevant contents and statements from a recent discussion on Radio SRF.1

The Swiss population wants to preserve a rural, diverse agriculture with small-scale farms. But over the last 20 years, per day three farms have disappeared and six workplaces in agriculture have been lost, according to Rudi Berli, organic farmer and member of the initiative committee. The initiative aims at stopping the decline of farms and therefore at more federal protection for agriculture. In order to achieve that, there aren’t any substantial law changes necessary, because Switzerland has a good legislative base in agriculture. Primarily the initiators are demanding from the federal government to implement these legal provisions. You will also find more detailed clarifications on the initiatives’ demands in the following interview with Rudi Berli.

Strengthening Swiss farmers and a healthy sustainable production versus more competition

Rudi Berli: “The Federal Council’s policies run in one direction only, namely opening borders and separating ecology and production. On the one hand production is supposed to be ecological and on the other hand it should be in line with greatest possible intensity. We want to eliminate this contradiction by strengthening the producers position, not with subsidies but rather on the market vis-à-vis our customers. The Federal Council ought to be working out a framework for producers already”.
Duri Campell, farmer and member of the opposition committee, does want to keep in line with Agriculture Policies 14–17, as laid down by parliament: “The countries around us are producing cheaper and I don’t want to promote the cross-border shopping tourism even more. The farmers are beginning to react to agriculture policies 14–17, they sell more directly from the farms, regionality is on the increase.[…] The consumers shall decide for themselves: Do I want a product originating from Switzerland? Or do I want a product that is cheaper and maybe not quite as good?”

Producers press for agreements with major distributors to be negotiated on equal terms

The initiative does not want a state planned economy nor does it want more money from the state, as the opponents are claiming, according to Rudi Berli. Much more the federal government has to work out frameworks, as already endorsed in todays’ regulations, to enable the producers to negotiate agreements on equal terms with the two dominant major distributors (Migros and Coop): “Then we would not only be receivers of remaining money but could generate decent prices. We also want to still exist in the future and we want to produce sustainably on diverse, family-based farms across the country.”

“If we vote for the initiatives, we will have problems with the EU

Duri Campell: “If you only look at the text of the initiative, I should also vote yes. But we know, if we approve the initiatives [also the Fair-Food-Initiative], then we will have problems with the EU. […] In the current discussion it would be very, very bad, if the farmers fan the fire. […]”.
Has it passed National Councillor Campell that negotiations on the institutional framework agreement is virtually no longer existent? The problems we have with the EU are certainly not because of the farmers, who – like a large part of the population – don’t want an agriculture agreement with Brussels and there are a number of toads the sovereign doesn’t want to swallow either.

“Without border control our agriculture would have disappeared ages ago”

The opponents’ claims, the initiative for Food Sovereignty is supposedly violating the WTO or agreements with the EU and other states, are wrong. The initiative is not demanding anything revolutionary. Rudi Berli: “The initiative is demanding a predominantly self-sufficiency, meaning it has to be above 50 per cent, as is the case today. We don’t want any further cut-backs on the degree of self-sufficiency. Without border control our agriculture would have disappeared ages ago, because we don’t have the same cost environment as the EU does. Otherwise the world market, the globalised competition with its negative impact on humans, animals and environment, will destroy our food security and our rural agriculture.”
Global Agricultural Report IAASTD: Farmers from all over the world want local self-sufficiency and border control instead of free trade
Sabine Gorgé: SRF: The initiative is demanding of the federal government to make border controls, demand higher customs duties for conventionally produced foodstuff and protect the domestic products. The federal government should be able to prohibit the import of produce that doesn’t meet the requirements of Swiss social and ecological standards. Rudi Berli, a kind of “Switzerland first?”
Rudi Berli: “Exactly. That’s what farmers all over the world are demanding. They want to participate in their local market first and supply their own market. This makes sense all over the world.” This is in accordance with the findings and demands of the Global Agricultural Report.

More controls through this initiative?

Duri Campell: “Already now each Swiss farm is inspected one to four times a year. Just imagine, if the production control would come on top of that and our inspectors would go across the borders. […] Controls until the cows come home…”
Rudi Berli: No, no, we already have a well-run, intelligent customs system that protects domestic produce, e.g. fruit and vegetables: When domestic production can supply the population, then customs duties go up and when we cannot produce enough, the borders open-up. This is exactly what the Federal Council wants to reduce with the free trade agreements, it says, we ought to become more competitive. This goes at the expense of self-sufficiency.”

Does the initiative lead to more expensive products for the consumers?

Some opponents fear higher prices in the shops, if the farmers receive better prices for their produce. The initiators, however,  don’t want the farmers being paid more by the consumers, but by the large distributors. Of course, Duri Campell is right when he says: “Good products do cost more, that’s the way it should be. And we are very thankful to those who are consuming them. But I also understand families, who cannot afford that. We must give the consumers the choice to buy what’s fine with them and what they can afford.” Because also in Switzerland a number of pensioners or families have to economise with their money.
Rudi Berli holds against that: “It’s not about higher prices [for the consumers], but about a larger proportion for the farmers. When in earlier days milk was sold in the shop for 1.50 Swiss francs, the farmer received close to 1 Swiss franc. Today he receives a mere 60 rappen [0.6 Swiss francs]. If you double the price for bread wheat, as we are wishing for, then we would have a decent income and could keep-on running our farms.”

Landscape conservation versus rural production?

With Agriculture Policy 14–17, says Duri Campell, the prices will adapt more or less to world market prices. It’s true that farmers cannot compete, except with a few niche products. For this reason they are receiving from the federal government – according to Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann only provisionally – direct payments for species protection andlandscape conservation. “What Uniterre wants to do”, Duri Campell maintains“, would be one step back to product subsidies. Maybe this would be fairer. But the overall services of agriculture like biodiversity and the agricultural cultivation would be lost again.”
The initiators, however, are sure that a great majority of Swiss farmers want to be producers. Rudi Berli: “No one is speaking of product subsidies. […] In direct marketing I’m producing cost-efficient for my customers and I get a decent income. The Swiss milk producers, however, don’t even get enough from the bulk buyers these days to cover their costs, not to mention any earnings. We must put an end to that.”

“We turn the structural change around”

To Duri Campell’s claim, that with the change of direction away from Agriculture Policies 14–17 the initiators were actually promoting the structural chance they wanted to avoid, Rudi Berli replies:” We do promote structural change but in a different direction, we turn it around. We want to bring more people to the countryside, which is another existing legal obligation, meaning to de-centralise settlements in the country and to encourage sustainability. Therefore we need more people and more hearts in agriculture. We can’t keep on asking for increasingly ecological products, without simultaneous economic sustainability, fair prices … There is no ecology at no cost. But it certainly will not cost the consumer more, because if regional production is organised demand-oriented, it becomes less expensive. That’s what we are proving every day on our farms.”    •

1     Radio SRF, “Tagesgespräch (Daily talk)” from 3 September 2018, with Rudi Berli from the initiative committee for Food Sovereignty, co-director of the farmers union Uniterre and organic farmer and Duri Campell, BDP National Councillor (GR), farmer and member of an opposition rural committee. Moderation: Sabine Gorgé