Telling Swiss Farmers What to Do

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t know who or what to vote for. “Undecided” is not a category I ever find myself in, at least not when it comes to politics. On June 13, however, Switzerland is voting on two initiatives that would force Swiss farmers to give up pesticide, and I don’t know what to do about them. As someone who has written a book praising organic farming, I’m surprised to find myself in this position.

Since 1891, it has been possible to launch a “federal popular initiative,” which is a proposed change to the Swiss constitution. It works like this: If I can persuade 100,000 eligible voters to sign a petition supporting my idea for a constitutional amendment—any idea!—then my proposal will be vetted by the parliament and (assuming I’ve followed the rules) voted on by the country. You’d think that by now the constitution would resemble something written by Monty Python, but that’s reckoning without Swiss commonsense and aversion to sudden change. Since 1891, the Swiss have voted on 219 popular initiatives, but only 23 have passed.

Neither of the initiatives coming before the public on June 13 demands sudden change. But they are still radical, because, if they are accepted, Swiss farmers will have to make some very hard decisions over the next ten years, and their lives are already difficult.

For decades, the number of farms in Switzerland has been shrinking. Today there are fewer than 50,000 (15% of them organic), with an average size of 50 acres. These few farmers receive CHF 2.8 billion ($3 billion) in direct subsidies from the government. In return for this largesse, their farming methods are tightly controlled. Rules determine what they have to do to  increase biodiversity; improve the welfare of their livestock; reduce the use of poisons on their crops, antibiotics in their animals, and fertilizer (including liquid manure) on their fields; and, in general, look after the land under their care. Needless to say, organic farmers have to follow the strictest rules of all.

So Swiss farmers already feel constrained by all kinds of regulations that determine how they raise animals and grow crops. Nevertheless, by the standards of many scientists, these rules aren’t strict enough, because increasingly high quantities of antibiotics (from the animal waste used as fertilizer) and poisonous chemicals (from the farmers’ insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) are being found in Swiss streams, lakes and ground water.

One of the initiatives we are about to vote on would ban the use of pesticides altogether. (The text says “synthetic” pesticides, but that turns out to be a meaningless distinction). This initiative would also ban the import of any food that has been produced using pesticides. The farmers who are against this initiative—which is almost all of them—talk threateningly of food shortages and starvation; more reasonable opponents point out that food—both locally grown and imported—would, at the very least, become much more expensive. Maybe so, say the initiative’s supporters, but at least it would be safe, and we’d have clean drinking water and, eventually, less illness caused by dangerous chemicals.

The other, less radical of the two initiatives says that Swiss farmers should receive government subsidies only if they give up the use of all pesticides and the regular use of antibiotics and, in addition, if they raise only the number of animals they can feed with the products of their own farms (in other words, they’d have to grow all their own animal feed). If farmers want to cling to their old, destructive ways, say the amendment’s supporters, they are free to do so, but not with the support of Swiss taxpayers.

And so I am undecided. I believe that our whole world has to grow green if we want to survive. But I can see why no one wants to begin the massive efforts needed, because that will cause a lot of suffering (although ultimately not as much suffering as will result from doing nothing). Some of the changes we try may fail. But we’ve already made such a mess that I think we have to risk making new mistakes in an attempt to set things right.

These initiatives represent only a minor step in the right direction, and adopting them may drive up the price of food and put even more Swiss farmers out of business. Still, perhaps they are experiments we need to try. If a population as wealthy as the Swiss won’t take risks like this, who will?

Or are those risks too drastic and the potential consequences too unfair?

I have until June 13 to make up my mind. If anyone wants to advise me, I’m all ears.

Oh yes—on the same day we’re also voting to approve a law that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Believe me, I have no problem knowing how to vote on that one!

Photo courtesy of Bio Wäberhof, an organic farming center in Ins, BE

The photo of a lettuce field at the start of this post is courtesy of Terraviva (Kerzers, FR), an organization that serves and advises eighty organic fruit and vegetable growers from all over Switzerland.

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