Switzerland is a net importer of most agricultural products. It imports more than it exports. Milk and dairy products are an exception, but, according to Agroscope, this export surplus is also evaporating.
Today is November 11, i.e. 11.11. Why is this important? It’s not just because Fasnacht begins at 11:11 a.m. on 11.11 in many places. St. Martin’s Day is hugely important for agriculture, as November 11 is seen as the end of the agricultural year.
At the end of October, the knowledge platform swiss-food.ch hosted a film screening and panel discussion in Zurich on the subject of genome editing entitled “Between Protest and Potential”. The well-attended event dealt with the emotional debates in recent decades surrounding genetic engineering. The event showed that the situation has changed fundamentally.
The final session of the Swiss parliament was held at the end of September. There was an emotional farewell, according to news reports. Members sang Mani Matter’s classic song “Hemmige” (“Hesita-tion”) at a drinks reception for the President of the National Council, which was held at Galerie des Alpes, the restaurant inside the Swiss Parliament Building. The choice of the song was a bit ironic. After all, parliament had shown little hesitation over the last four years when it comes to drafting excessive regulations.
At the beginning of September, the Swiss federal government launched its new "2050 Climate Strategy for Agriculture and Food". It contains measures along the entire value chain – from farm to fork, as they say in Europe.
Patents protect innovation and at the same time they drive innovation. During our Swiss-Food Talk on August 15, three innovation experts discussed the importance of patents for the Swiss economy. Patents are also important for start-up companies and SMEs. After all, patents make it easier to find fundings for innovations and bring them to market.
The different yardsticks are obvious. But one can get smarter. Agricultural crops, and thus much of our food, are at risk - from freak weather, pests, diseases and competing weeds. And in view of global networking, it is impossible to prevent pests from migrating. The fact that the Japanese beetle chose Kloten is not without a certain irony. But the fact is that farmers are constantly faced with emergencies. Here, too, pragmatic, careful use of crop protection products is often the only solution. After all, it is not only pests and plant diseases from foreign countries that cause damage. This is also true for native ones. Instead of alarmism, objective discussion and common sense are called for.
Genome editing with native genes is not fundamentally different from conventional breeding. However, because this technique is more precise, it results in fewer unintended mutations. Hence, there is a broad scientific consensus that genome editing should not be regulated differently from conventional breeding methods. Those who advocate "following the science" on climate change must not ignore the broad scientific consensus on plant breeding methods either.
Digitalization is making its way into agriculture. At the Swiss-Food Talk on April 25, 2023, three experts from the agricultural machinery industry, vegetable production, and agricultural media discussed how digitization is changing food production. The consensus is that we are in the transition from industrial to smart agriculture, where data and algorithms as support allow precise interventions and serve sustainability.
The intentions are mostly noble. Politicians want to help the "good" prevail. But there is a problem. Often, the "good" is defined very partially. The comprehensive view is missing. There is a lack of understanding for the goal and consequences of a political intervention, because beyond the buzzwords, things often look different.
If we want to keep enjoying Easter and our daily diets in the future, despite increasingly limited resources, we need innovation from businesses and farmers as well as an environment that enables creativity.
If the withdrawal of products from the Swiss market could lead to export bans, Swiss approval would become a risk for these companies and they would think twice about seeking approval in Switzerland in the first place. This means export bans will rebound on Swiss farmers. If they support export bans, they will have to be concerned about missing out on innovative new pesticides.
Protein is a key component in a healthy, balanced diet. However, the majority of protein consumed by humans derives from animals and is extremely resource-intensive to produce. What might alternatives look like? And what needs to happen to enable alternative protein products to end up in consumers’ baskets? Three speakers spoke about this at the Swiss-Food Talk.
Sustainability that is comprehensive can only be guaranteed by an agricultural sector that minimizes ecological impacts, without losing sight of productivity. It uses the most efficient technologies. For example, good use of data promotes the efficiency of agricultural production. Data also creates transparency. It allows us to see what has truly been produced sustainably. And it enables one thing that will become key in the future of the food sector: “More data, less woke”.
2023 is an election year in Switzerland. And in an election year, long-term thinking risks being sacrificed to short-term gains. But politicians need to make election promises that take account of the long-term and can be implemented pragmatically. Marketing-like claims alone will not result in success. Holistic concepts and the acceptance of pragmatic collaboration between public and private researchers are essential. Supporting ideology-free research will allow politicians to become problem-solvers. Simply identifying problems is no longer sufficient. Doing so is neither forward-looking nor constructive.
Take a step back and get an overview to be able to make better decisions and take action. With this brief “look back to look ahead,” we thank you for your interest, wish you a good start in the new year, and look forward to engaging conversations in 2023!
Science will play a major role in the transition to a sustainable food system. A system that is necessary because the world’s population is growing, and up to 50 percent more food must be produced in a smaller area if we are to feed everyone. All of this pre-supposes that science will continue to remain the focus of political decision-making.
We are reliant on optimized foodstuffs in order to supply the planet’s growing population with healthy, sustainably produced food. However, consumers often view these as “artificial”, and thus “unnatural” – and “natural” is the preferred choice. Of our everyday foods, however, very few are of " natural origin". They have been bred and optimized over time. But are supposedly “natural” products also healthier and more sustainable? Three presenters took an in-depth look at food optimization in the Swiss-Food Talk.
Green biotechnology techniques are bringing us all closer to achieving our goal of securing supplies while protecting the environment. The Ethics Committee ought to be rejoicing. But it would require a U-turn from the ethicists, without which they would remain behind the curve.
As with the issue of energy supply, the current challenges call for a realistic agricultural pol-icy. It is encouraging to see that the EU Commission's statistics show a constant decrease in the risks from pesticides over the last ten years. This shows that it is possible to have productive agriculture with increased safety. What is not possible, however, is agricul-ture that does not protect crops but at the same time guarantees supply security and food safety. Unrealistic “strategies” are also leading to shortages in agriculture.
Our naturalness-centric view of food safety is sometimes skewed. What’s more, marketing campaigns and media discussions often distort our view even further. It is therefore important that policy makers have a compass to find a way out of this confusion. Our food is safe – thanks in no small part to innovative chemistry and technical advances.
Our future food supply must ensure everyone has access to sufficient nutrients and protect the health of the planet. That is the goal. However, developing this kind of “meal plan” is not so easy. In the Swiss-Food Talk, experts in science and industry discuss what healthy, environmentally friendly nutrition should look like. One thing is clear: Sustainable food must suit the tastes of the people, meet the specific local needs, and be affordable.
This year, nearly everything is in short supply. Supply chains have been interrupted. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prevented the usual supply of wheat from reaching the global markets. Electricity and gas shortages loom. And now water is an issue as well, following a summer with almost no rain in much of Europe. This poses an enormous challenge for agriculture.
During the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, consumer demand for flour exploded. Everyone wanted to bake bread at home. Flour and yeast were hard to find on supermarket shelves. In fact, the website brigitte.de recommends a type of bread that can be made without flour. But that’s not to everyone’s taste.
As a megatrend, scarcity of resources dictates the solution to the pending Herculean task. It is as follows: Securing global supply in a sustainable manner while protecting ecosystems. We must be able to increase agricultural productivity while at the same time orienting production in such a way that it does not damage soil, biodiversity or climate.
Opening up the focus on sustainability can only be beneficial. The sustainability debate is in urgent need of an update. Sustainability is comprehensive. It is more than just a cloak to be worn for marketing purposes. It encompasses climate protection and biodiversity protection. However, without productivity, organic farming can become a social boomerang.
If you play to your own strengths, you can help advance society in terms of food security and comprehensive sustainability. But if you create your own agenda and steer away from science, you are only helping yourself – if anyone at all – and then only for as long as the marketing bubble does not burst.
The Swiss precautionary principle needs to be a clever mix of imports, domestic production and exports. This is based on a sustainable intensification and, at the same time, protecting the climate and biodiversity. This can only be done on a scientific basis.
The Swiss Parliament has decided to update the genetic engineering moratorium that has been in place since 2005. The step was overdue. On the occasion of a webinar organized by swiss-food.ch, experts from science and agriculture spoke about the benefits of new biotechnological breeding methods. It became clear: the risks are low, the opportunities are great.
We are well advised to deal with the megatrends and potential supply risks. We have to tackle the scarcity of resources on our planet with resource efficiency. And we should not exclude any technology in advance– especially if, regardless of their origin – laboratory, greenhouse or vertical farm – they could contribute to overcoming global challenges and to overall sustainability.
Agriculture must be part of the solution. You cannot get real sustainability without productive agriculture. And the key to this is innovation.Targeted breeding can play an important role.
Society will not benefit from bans and risk avoidance, but rather from innovation and weighing up the opportunities and risks with a level head.
The call to eat more healthily and with a more responsible, ecologically friendly approach is absolutely the right one, but it is easier to say than do. There are many obstacles in the way. What does a healthy, comprehensively sustainable diet actually look like? The objec-tive is to find a fact-based approach, not a new religion.
In the six months prior to the agricultural referendums last June, there were around 3500 media articles containing the keywords ‘drinking water’ and ‘pesticides’ in the Swiss media database, around seven times more than in the six months afterwards (around 500 media articles). But the facts have not changed at all.
Overall, it is incoherent to prohibit technologies and innovations. Sustainable and resource-efficient agriculture, in a comprehensive sense, needs long-term planning – and coherence.
Recently, the Federal Government published the sales figures for plant protection products for the year 2020. The number of plant protection products sold declined as it did in previous year. While farmers are increasingly turning to products that are approved for organic farming, sales of plant protection products for conventional agriculture have declined.
Climate change also affects agriculture and the entire food production process. The food chain both contributes to climate change and is affected by it.
2021 is a catastrophic agricultural year in many areas in Switzerland. The crop failures are severe and so is the associated waste of resources. A lot of work has been done, energy and resources used, the soil tended and the crops nurtured, but all too often the efforts have not paid off.
A survey commissioned by swiss-food showed clear majorities in favour of the new precision breeding methods if they are seen as beneficial for the environment or health. The population is moving. Now the politicians have to follow.
In the media discussion about sustainability in Switzerland, one sometimes gets the impression that sustainability is only on the environmental leg. It is only about banning chemicals from life and returning to nature. The effects on the social and economic pillars are generously suppressed in this limping sustainability.
In order to feed the growing world population in a balanced and sufficient way, the production of fruits and vegetables must be drastically increased. In a nutshell: vegetables and fruits are needed for everyone. For this, modern technologies such as plant breeding, plant protection, but also digitalisation are indispensable.
In fact, we need an open, fact-based technology discussion. Comprehensive sustainability is based on a careful, ideology-free evaluation of opportunities and risks - and the will to tackle problems instead of sitting them out.
Overall, the clear rejection of the two initiatives is a clear vote for productive, resource-efficient agriculture and against bans on technology and thinking. Ultimately, only productive agriculture can be sustainable. It uses all resources (including energy, labour and finances) carefully.