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Produce regionally what can be produced in the region

Federal popular initiative of 24 September 2017

Press Conference on food security and food sovereignty in Bern

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

Pierre-André Tombez (left) and Rudi Berli (right) on the podium at the press conference of 7 September 2017 in Berne. (picture mw)

On 7 September 2017, the Alliance for food sovereignty and Uniterre invited to a press conference in Berne. Focused on the upcoming referendum and the information about their own popular initiative “For food sovereignty” which is estimated to come to vote end 2018.
The General Assembly of Uniterre abstained from taking a position already a few weeks ago to the vote of 24 September, in order not to split the farmers and in the hope of later support of the Swiss farmer’s Union (SBV) at their own voting campaign. The Alliance for food sovereignty, however, at their general meeting on 23 August 2017, clearly said no to the voting proposals “Food safety” (which doesn’t justify this name in any way).1
At the press conference Pierre-André Tombez, President of the Alliance for food sovereignty, and Rudi Berli, Secretary of Uniterre, spoke. Despite – or just because? – the absence of the big media houses a lively and meaningful discussion developed in the fine federal style each in his language (French or German).
Some important results from the presentations and the discussion should be reported here.

“More market with more sustainability at the same time is not possible”

Pierre-André Tombez criticised first Paragraph c) of the voting proposal “Food safety” which calls for “a market-aimed agriculture and food industry”. On the example of sugar beets, being produced and processed in Switzerland for a long time but increasingly struggling with the cheap competition from abroad, the expert showed the devastating effect of one-sided orientation towards the market on the basis of a recent manifestation of the Federal Council: “To increase the competitiveness of the sugar industry it is required to reduce the average cost per produced unit of sugar beet, the transport and the processing.”2 Pierre-André Tombez’ comment: “The Federal Council has clearly chosen what market it preferred, namely those of competitiveness and of never ending liberalism.”
As a second point of criticism to the voting proposal of 24 September (which connects the first directly) Pierre-André Tombez mentions the “cross-border trade relations which contribute to the sustainable agriculture and food industry” (paragraph d) of the voting proposal) and adds the interpretation of the Federal Council, according to which the export industry would benefit of “a modest and gradual opening of the Swiss food market for imports” and provide “welfare gains for the whole economy”.
“How is it possible to interpret a ‘contribution to sustainable agriculture and food industry’ like this?” asked the speaker. Whereas the increasing price pressure “leads to more and more crazier excesses: the scandal with the contaminated eggs is still fresh in memory for us. If every link in the production chain must further reduce costs, the tendency for scale effects will increase, i.e. production and profitability maximisation, which, in turn, entails intensification of the production methods: more supplies for crops, smaller areas for animals ... as we witnessed in certain pigsties ... Consumers are outraged by such excesses! [...] If we continue on this path, the Swiss agriculture and its farmers are sacrificed. Today 2–3 farms per day disappear. In milk production 20,000 farms have disappeared within 20 years (from 40,000 to 20,000)!”

We need a market design that allows the farmers to live from their production

“Common sense tells us that our food must come from a peasant agriculture which produces regionally what can be produced regionally. That is the basis of food security and sovereignty, and this is also the recommendation of the World Agriculture Report.” With these significant words Rudi Berli, Secretary of Uniterre, starts his presentation. He denounces the policy – not only in Switzerland – because it allows the market getting more and more under the control of the food companies and the large distributors so that the prices are constantly crashing. At the same time, the Federal Council plans to reduce direct payments to farmers. Therefore, farmers were forced to eliminate jobs and to import much of what is cheaper abroad, for example animal feed.
Rudi Berli comes to the conclusion that food security and sovereignty is not possible this way: “Food security and sovereignty means priority for short circuits, transparent, regional production and processing and distributors which don’t impose a diktat on the food system, but perform the role of a connecting link between town and country, between farmers and consumers.”

The active audience supports the goals of the initiative for food sovereignty

The discussion emphasised that the “Referendum for food security” would receive many No-votes at the ballot on 24 September. The support of the present media representatives and other citizens for the “Initiative for food sovereignty. Agriculture affects all of us” coming to vote end of 2018 was the same. A participant asked for a long-term common action: “The day after the vote on the counter-proposal to Food security, on 25 September, the Fair-Food initiative [with similar goals as the Initiative for food sovereignty; mw.] will be discussed in the National Council. The Federal Council and the majority of the Commission recommend the rejection. A minority of the Commission will make a counter-proposal, which – as the counter-proposal to food security – will remove all obstacles for free agricultural trade agreement and would open the door for the import of cheap food and genetically modified products. How can we best work together to oppose to these tendencies?”
Pierre-André Tombez’s answer was short and clear: “End of 2018 our own Initiative for food sovereignty will come to vote. Here we must use our power and win many people.” His fellow expert Rudi Berli added: “We think that all three initiatives complete each other and are complementary. In the run-up to the launch, we have undertaken efforts to make one out of all three initiatives. It doesn‘t bother us that we have three times the opportunity to discuss. But finally, the result must lead to a strengthening of local production, because that is the feeding system of the future. And the fair-food initiative is surely part of it. […]”
Finally, the speakers called to contribute to the broad support for their initiative. Uniterre and the Alliance for food sovereignty are two small organizations that are politically neutral and have no representative in Parliament campaigning for its cause. But they have, so Pierre-André Tombez, a clear vision of the necessary development and strategy for a nutrition policy. He added:
“And it is a good answer that already some journalists are interested in our initiative, also from German-speaking Switzerland. If there are more such journalists, it will be even easier to fight. We have a lot to do for our cause, in German-speaking Switzerland and in the French part.” •

1    cf. Current Concerns No 19 from 15 August 2017 and No 21 from 10 September 2017
2    Measures against a deindustrialisation of food industry. Report of the Federal Council from 30 August 2017, p. 16

Self–supply with Swiss sugar in danger

mw. Sugar beets are produced for a long time in Switzerland. The first sugar beet plant was founded in 1899 in Aarberg, the second 1950 in Frauenfeld. Both later were merged into Swiss Sugar Corporation. Today 90 per cent of our sugar comes from sugar beets. (That means almost complete self-supply.) Even the Federal Council pointed out in his report from 30 August 2017 the great importance of Swiss sugar as well as of the manufacturing industry (for example manufacturers of chocolate): “The sugar manufacturing industry is economically relevant for Switzerland. It creates many jobs, produces worldwide known products and makes 85 per cent of the Swiss sugar. Exports of sugar take place virtually exclusively in the form of manufactured products. Precondition for the success of this industry are competitive prices of the raw materials especially concerning sugar.”1 In contradiction to this appreciation the Federal Council makes the aforesaid unrealistic demand on producers and manufacturers to «reduce their costs”.
Fact is: Only a few years ago 5800 farmers produced more than 300 000 tons of Swiss sugar.

(Source: Swiss center for cultivation of sugar beets SFZ. http://zuckerruebe.ch).

In 2016 according to a report of Swiss TV SRF it were – not only because of the bad weather – merely 200 000 tons.
Thereto Josef Meyer, president of the Swiss association of sugar beet planters: “A year ago the world market price was very low and naturally this low price had negative effects on our sugar price. And a bad sugar price results in a bad beet price”. The domestic share will decrease further because the EU wants to increase the sugar beet production: “The EU wants to export 20 per cent of its production in future which will beat down the price.” (SRF, 27 Ocotber 2016).
As Pierre-André Tombez stated correctly: More market in coincidence with more sustainability is simply not possible – except we give up our self-supply with sugar. But this is no more than the aim of the Brussels headquarters, the EU (and certain domestic) major corporations and a number of Swiss politicians and federal offices – the big majority of us citizens certainly do not want this.

1    Measures against a deindustrialisation in food industry. Report of the Federal Council from 30.8.2017, page 13