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Food security on Swiss voters’ menu

The Swiss are expected to vote overwhelming in favour of protecting local food production and prioritising sustainable farming practices. But what will the outcome of Sunday’s poll mean for imports?

While the expected vote result may bring a smile to some faces, it is not going to transform the Swiss farming sector overnight. The rather vague Article 104a of the Swiss constitution promising “the reliable provision of the population with foodstuffs” will be amended to be a little less vague. It will incorporate five elements deemed key to helping Switzerland feed its population in the face of political and climatic uncertainty: Prevent erosion of domestic agricultural production base, make food production more adaptable and efficient, reduce dependence on subsidies, maintain cross-border trade, and reduce waste.

The amendment will better define the kind of agriculture the Swiss people would like to see more of: local and sustainable. However, no new laws on food security will be passed and the federal government as well as cantons are not obliged to take any new action as such.

Those in favour of the amendment include the majority of political parties, environmental organisations and farmers’ groups. Opposing voices have been few and have made strange bedfellows: the ultra leftwing Swiss Workers’ Party and ultra conservative Federal Democratic Union, as well as the Alliance for Food Sovereignty (made up of around 250 agriculture and religious groups). The “No” camp is unhappy about a clause stating that Swiss agriculture should be market-oriented and less reliant on subsidies.

The latest opinion poll shows that a “Yes” vote is highly likely.

Import impact

The text of vote acknowledged that Switzerland could never be self-sufficient in food production. Currently, the country produces around 60% of its domestic requirement.

One clause calls for imports to contribute to the sustainable development of agriculture and the food-supply chain. But by making sustainability apply to imports, could the vote paradoxically harm farmers in developing countries by imposing a sort of hidden tariff for entry into the Swiss market? Jonathan Hepburn, senior programme manager for agriculture at Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) doesn’t think so.

“The proposed amendment doesn’t require Switzerland to impose additional tariffs or other new market barriers, or require exporters to prove that farm goods are produced sustainably,” he says.

The Swiss already spend the most per head on organic and Fair Trade products, a significant portion of which are imported. So, in a way they are rewarding best practices from importers. However, Hepburn points out that if Switzerland really wants to help achieve sustainable development of agriculture at a global level, they should look at opening up their rather protected agricultural market to exports from poorer countries.

One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, that Switzerland has signed up to, is ending hunger by 2030 by achieving food security and promoting sustainable agriculture. The text mentions that one way of achieving this is to “correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets”.

Not the end

One would think that the issue of food sustainability has been done and dusted in Switzerland for a few years at least. But two more such initiatives are in the pipeline and will likely be put to the ballot next year: “For Fair Food”, launched by the Greens, and “For Food Sovereignty”, initiated by the association of small-scale farmers, Uniterre.

How we got here

The Swiss Farmers Association first proposed an initiative to improve the supply of locally grown foodstuff by stemming the loss of farming land, reducing the administrative burden on agriculture and guaranteeing investment in the sector. It seemed like such a good idea that it gathered the required number of signatures in record time.

The proposal was also well received in parliament with MPs liking the general idea but felt it needed to be less protectionist and more specific. Hence, a counter-proposal was floated that added in clauses in support of a more efficient, responsive and less wasteful food production system. The Swiss Farmers Association withdrew its initiative allowing citizens to vote on the parliamentary counter proposal instead.