Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Incoherent politics endanger
sustainable agriculture

Holistic thinking has been demanded for years. This is a key aspect of the organic movement. When it comes to taking off the blinkers, many people will be able to agree with the demand for a holistic approach. In all honesty, we have to admit that an entirely holistic approach is not achievable. However, we can at least address conflicts of interest within the discourse so we can make informed compromises.

Aiming for coherence is a more modest and realistic goal. Coherence comes from the Latin verb 'cohaerere', meaning 'connect'. Though a holistic approach may repeatedly slip through our fingers, it wouldn't hurt to at least think in terms of connections. This also applies to politics, of course. Connections are especially important if one wants to actually achieve political goals and not simply 'do something'.

However, political coherence is often lacking, particularly in the agricultural and food industry. There is no coherent view and incentives are incorrectly placed. Or some measures are mutually incompatible. This goes for both large- and small-scale operations. The European 'Farm to Fork' agricultural strategy lacks a global perspective. Three key studies on its effects show that reducing pesticides and increasing the proportion of organic farming to 25 percent has a massive impact on the productivity of EU agriculture. Decreased productivity in EU agriculture conflicts with the aim of regional security of supply. And the European aims conflict with the global aim of feeding around ten billion people in 2050, because their own production is outsourced. This is neither an efficient use of resources nor sustainable.

According to the Joint Research Centre of the EU (JRC) study, the Farm to Fork strategy not only outsources production, but also the ecological impact with it. The American USDA study expects agricultural production in the EU to be reduced by 12 percent and prices to increase by 17 percent. The initial results of the Wageningen University and Research (WUR) impact assessment, commissioned by an alliance of food supply organisations, indicate the same thing. The ecologically-motivated political aims of the EU will reduce European agricultural production and export their carbon footprint. From the point of view of European agriculture, a holistic approach to agricultural aims is sorely needed by the EU Commission. Because political coherence is lacking.

We can also learn from the EU. Sugar beet cultivation is politically desirable in Switzerland. The adverts all shout about 'Swiss sugar' and 'natural'. However, sugar beet cultivation is a real science, since sugar beets have many enemies. Alongside the threat posed by pests, there are also yellowing viruses. Seeds dressed with neonicotinoids have been approved in many EU countries as an emergency measure to overcome these threats. The farmers desperately needed the technology to protect their crops. And these EU countries have sophisticated, health-related regulation systems and the highest standards. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also expressly supported the decisions of the member states to approve neonicotinoids in 2020/21, because farmers had no other practicable alternatives: 'either because no alternative products or methods – chemical or non-chemical – were available or because there was a risk that pests could become resistant to the available alternative products.'

However, the use of these products is prohibited in Switzerland. This means farmers cannot effectively protect their crops. In the meantime, politics is strengthening border protection and distributing subsidies. But if farmers cannot protect their crops, neither subsidies nor border management will help and farmers are only tentatively engaging with this loss leader. This is because: you can’t replace missing harvests with money.

The connections are incorrect in ecological terms, too. The policy is to protect bees. However, neonicotinoid seed dressing poses no risk to bees. Sugar beets are harvested before they bloom. A suitable cultivation regime can also avert the minimal risk to successive crops. While environmentally friendly seed dressing is prohibited, large-scale sprays are being approved as emergency measures. The industry is also planning to apply for more emergency approvals in 2022. They can be less favourable for bees. This is yet another case of a lack of political coherence.

Rapeseed is another example of missed connections. There is a new compulsory stock regulation for rapeseed in Switzerland now, but no more pesticides to protect the fields. A number of more environmentally friendly pesticides are currently stuck in the approval process. The path to approval is strewn with obstacles. This is why industry associations are demanding consistency in EU approval. This is because many pesticides, that have been approved in the EU for many years, are not available to Swiss farmers. 'Boosting regional production' should mean action, not just words!

Connections have also been missed due to technology prohibitions: rapeseed could replace soy as animal feed, if cultivated in a targeted manner, but genome editing is set to remain within the bounds of the moratorium on genetic engineering. Soy imports are criticised, yet the link between them and the moratorium and targeted cultivation is not being recognised. Rapeseed is also a suitable replacement for the heavily criticised palm oil. Society wants to replace tropical palm oil with native products. But connections are being missed here, too.

Organic farmers, incidentally, use rapeseed oil as an insecticide in organic farming. Native rapeseed is an all-rounder. Rapeseed is, however, a vulnerable crop. Multiple pests thrive in rapeseed fields and threaten the harvest. Without synthetic pesticides, domestic cultivation is impossible. Overall, rapeseed is a good example of the lack of political coherence.

Industry organisation swiss granum addressed a similar case of incoherence recently. It wants to boost Swissness and has launched the 'Schweizer Brot' (Swiss Bread) label. This label guarantees 80 percent of the wheat used is Swiss. However, import quotas have to be increased this year as the native harvest was a literal washout and both the quantity and quality of the Swiss wheat harvest leave much to be desired. The wet weather combined with the government order to reduce the range of pesticides are to blame.

The new government coalition in Germany is set to prohibit glyphosate by 2023. But farming methods that protect both climate and soil are barely possible without herbicides. Since other active agents have been eliminated, glyphosate remains the only widely effective broadleaf herbicide. Many direct sowing methods that protect both climate and soil are barely usable without glyphosate or would lead to significantly more herbicides being used in successive crops. An expert report published in late 2020 by the Federal Agency for Agriculture in Switzerland provides a clear overview of the disadvantages of the alternatives available today. The existing replacement solutions increase the risk of soil erosion. The alternatives also cost more to produce. Controlling perennial weeds is also harder with these methods. Current mechanical methods also use more energy and produce more carbon emissions in comparison with the glyphosate method. Policies that play to the crowd ignore connections.

This also applies to genetic engineering. It is politically incoherent when classical mutation breeding, which interferes with the genome using chemicals and radioactive radiation, is described as "GM-free" and is permitted, but much more precise and gentle methods of intervention are to be regarded as GM and are banned. Everyone wants sustainable agriculture. But this also needs the appropriate tools. And that is, for example, highly precise genome editing for more resistant crops. All in all, it is incoherent to ban techniques and block innovations. Sustainable and resource-efficient agriculture in the broad sense needs planning security and coherence.

Yours, the swiss-food editorial team

The swiss-food platform provides information relating to agriculture and nutrition. It is committed to providing factual information and promoting large-scale sustainability.
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