Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Light at the end of the regulation tunnel?

Dear readers,

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. The motivation behind the climate strategy is two-fold: firstly, the consequences of climate change are putting pressure on food production. Secondly, agricultural production and food are jointly responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is truly a major challenge for agriculture. However, the problem is not being approached holistically. Sustainability needs to be properly thought through and tackled in all three dimensions at once. Political goals are still insufficiently in tune with everyday reality. For example, the vegetarian diet being promoted by the federal government throws up several contradictions. A concrete example of this is the licensing of crop protection products: farmers are running out of products to use, and this is most clearly evident in the case of fruit, vegetables and oilseeds.

The Tages-Anzeiger newspaper recently reported on the threat to rapeseed cultivation in Switzerland. Swiss rapeseed oil is much in demand, for example as an alternative to palm oil from developing countries, against which development organizations have been conducting large-scale campaigns for years. However, things are not looking good for the production of this home-grown alternative. There are insufficient crop protection products available for rapeseed cultivation. To acclaim from environmental organizations, more and more pesticides are being taken off the market. The consequence of this is that Swiss farmers can no longer effectively combat flea beetles, rape stem weevils or rape beetles. Farmers are plowing rape fields up again ahead of schedule and planting other crops instead. Food loss and avoidable emissions in the fields are on the rise. The supply of regional products is stagnating while imports are increasing. And farmers are sounding the alarm.

The cultivation of potatoes is another area where the lack of crop protection products is having an effect. 2023 will be a difficult year for potato growers. Due to the wet spring, many potatoes were planted either late or under less than optimum conditions, meaning that they were slow to grow and more susceptible to pests and diseases. At the same time, as reported by the Schweizer Bauer newspaper, the non-availability of active ingredients is making production more difficult and increasing the risks for potato farmers.

These examples show that if the Federal Government is calling for increased cultivation of plant products, then farmers must also have at their disposal the products they need to protect their crops. The fact that increased cultivation is impossible without these products is shown by the lengthy list of emergency licenses granted at federal level alone. But this approach is neither honest nor sustainable. There is a need for greater coherence in the licensing of crop protection products. Ironically, the same Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office which is responsible for the crop protection predicament was also responsible, at least in part, for drafting the food strategy.

The licensing process for innovative crop protection products in Switzerland is in trouble. Around 700 applications are currently piled up at the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office. And this is unlikely to change, as according to the authorities, they only manage 100 applications per year. Imagine this kind of licensing backlog in other areas of innovation - cell phones or cars, for example. The damaged Gotthard tunnels can be repaired again, but the government-organized innovation brake on plant protection is expected to block agricultural production for years. The blockade seems to be intentional. Parliament approving a few new posts does nothing to help, but merely inflates the apparatus of state.

Generally speaking, the authorities are using specious arguments to prevent any speeding up of the licensing process for improved, modern crop protection products. Fortunately, the National Council has now taken charge. A motion on this from National Councilor Philipp Bregy was adopted in the first week of the fall session. The substance of the motion can be explained very quickly. When revoking licenses for plant protection products, the Swiss authorities currently refrain from making their own assessment and adopt the EU's assessment. In the last few years, hundreds of products have had their licenses revoked in this way. However, the rapid EU-inspired withdrawal of crop protection products has a flip side. The Swiss authorities' extremely sluggish licensing procedure has left a gaping hole. Farmers now have access to few if any crop protection products to combat pests and diseases for each crop. Another problem with this is that for effective resistance management, as with medical drugs, it is essential to have a variety of active ingredients available. The licensing blockade is affecting products for both organic and conventional farming.

Philipp Bregy, National Councilor for Valais canton, is therefore proposing that Switzerland should recognize the EU's licensing of active ingredients and products. If Switzerland can follow the EU in revoking licenses, why should it not do the same for licensing? Symmetrical regulation makes sense. It is absurd to treat the licensing and recall of plant protection products completely differently. The expedient new regulation would prevent a situation where winegrowers in the part of Klettgau in the canton of Schaffhausen cannot protect their grapes against fungi, while their German colleagues a few kilometers away have access to effective products, as was seen in 2021. In Parliament, the ball is now in the Council of States' court.

The benefit of modern plant protection products is also evident in the case of pest migration. This summer, the Japanese beetle made headlines in Kloten. Insecticides were the only thing that worked against the Japanese beetle. And now the Asian hornet is threatening our native bees. Recently, a dead Asian hornet was found in Zürich canton. The Asian hornet's diet includes honeybees. If the hornets spread, it would be devastating.

The UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) actually sees invasive species as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. It reports that invasive species were responsible for or at least a factor in 60 percent of global species extinctions.

To start with, we need to digest the fact that the threat to biodiversity from invasive species is this serious. The findings show once again that simple solutions, such as cutting off the supply of plant protection products as practiced by the Federal Government, are completely unsuitable. This has also been recognized not least by the EU: It is scaling back its ambitious plans for reducing the use of plant protection products, because the plan is "unworkable". Germany's Green agriculture minister, up until now an enthusiastic backer of ambitious reduction targets, is backpedaling: He says there are "technical errors" in the EU reduction plan, which would pose a risk not least to specialty crops in Germany such as fruits or vines. The tunnel vision is opening up and in Switzerland as well as in the EU there are signs of light at the end of the regulation tunnel.

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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