Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Productivity is an achievement and not something to be ashamed of

Dear readers,

As former German Minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, Julia Klöckner, once famously said: “Food production does not work in the home office.” This also applies to Switzerland. Calories are not generated at a desk. The desk is where they are burned at best. The fact is that calories are increasingly being imported. According to the latest Agroscope report on food security: “For most foods, imports (...) increased between 2012 and 2021.” 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.

The net self-sufficiency rate of Swiss agriculture fell from 55 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2021. The population is growing, and farmland is declining. Climate change is a further challenge facing agriculture. Agroscope expects this trend to continue: “The available farmland per person (...) will continue to decline in the future,” writes the Swiss Confederation’s institute for applied agricultural research.

What needs to be done? The Nutrition Report addresses the central issues with a focus on the sustainable use of available resources. In addition, climate change and the spread of pests call for more research into effective adaptation and mitigation measures. This includes breeding crops that are more resistant to drought, disease, and pests. All in all, agricultural productivity must continue to rise, even if this is not explicitly stated in the report. Others put it more bluntly: “If we want to produce more food within the planetary boundaries, this can only be achieved through higher productivity and increased crop yields. To achieve this, we need modern technology, which we should not close our minds to” as, for example, Matin Qaim, agricultural economist at the University of Bonn, said to the German Handelsblatt.

Without an increase in productivity, the self-sufficiency rate will continue to decline. And that encourages extreme initiatives from people such as Franziska Herren, initiator of the rejected Clean Drinking Water Initiative, whose new project for a popular initiative aims to enshrine a net self-sufficiency rate of 70 percent in the constitution. Signatures are currently being gathered. The BauernZeitung reflected on the impact of this initiative on agriculture. Based on the analysis by Agristat, the statistical service of the Swiss Farmers’ Union, she comes to the following conclusion: In purely mathematical terms, a net self-sufficiency rate of 70 percent would be possible, but Swiss agriculture would look different. And the population’s diet would also have to change radically. What Agristat’s brief analysis does not say, but which experts from Agroscope also confirm is that: A switch to a plant-based diet, as the Climate strategy of the Confederation for the agricultural and food sectors wants, would require a greater use of pesticides. This is because it is precisely these speciality crops (fruits, veggies) that are particularly vulnerable.

Markus Somm does not shy away from talking about agricultural productivity in the Swiss liberal news portal, Nebelspalter. Under the title “More pesticides, more genetic engineering: How we are overcoming hunger," Somm illustrates, based on sound historical evidence, how agricultural innovations have helped reduce hunger over time. Once upon a time, hunger was a constant companion of mankind: “One bad summer, one bad harvest, one war was enough to cause hundreds of thousands to die. They starved, they died like flies.” With the green revolution of the last 200 years, hunger has been reduced significantly. Hunger could even be eradicated altogether if technological progress in food and agriculture were not frequently obstructed for political reasons. For Somm, resistance to genetic engineering is just one grotesque example of this. For there is “no scientific evidence that genetically modified plants are harmful to us.”

Another example is the embargo on agricultural productivity by the Swiss Confederation. Swiss farmers’ hands are being tied by the backlog of crop protection product licenses. Local food production is being weakened. This was the main topic of the Martini media conference organized by the Zurich Farmers’ Association. Farmers in the EU will have faster access to modern products to protect their crops. In Switzerland, however, the product licensing process is bureaucratic and inefficient. Zurich farmers are therefore calling for a simplification of the licensing process for crop protection.

The current situation has ludicrous consequences. Palm oil imports could be replaced by domestic rapeseed. However, too little rapeseed is grown in Switzerland due to a lack of crop protection products on the market. Consequently, the state is going to fill its increased compulsory stocks with imported rapeseed oil. The ridiculous thing is that the imported rapeseed may be produced with crop protection products that are not approved for use in Switzerland. It is parochial bureaucracy gone mad. And the self-sufficiency rate continues to decline.

While Bern is fighting tooth and nail against new plant protection products, the Federal Office for National Economic Supply (FONES) states in its latest report on stockpiling that "synthetic chemical crop protection products are indispensable for combating the most serious diseases and pests" and that "non-chemical control options are not sufficient to reduce significant crop losses if the degree of self-sufficiency has to be increased in a shortage situation". Crop protection products were attested to be “of vital importance, representing a high degree of vulnerability". The establishment of dynamic federal compulsory stocks will therefore be evaluated in 2024. The signals could not be more contradictory. Simultaneously prohibiting, not-licensing and on the other hand hoarding - it certainly sounds like a bad joke.

The acute problem posed by the lack of crop protection products is also illustrated by the example of farmer René Ritter from Wenslingen (BL). He documented the situation in a video. Politicians are calling for the cultivation of more plant-based proteins. But a full hectare’s worth of farming has yielded just a wheelbarrow full of chickpeas. “In an average harvest, the yield should have been 2 to 3 tons,” writes the farmer from Zurich. “This was due to the cotton bollworm. Suitable crop protection products are available, but not licensed in Switzerland.” Ritter’s loss is no isolated case, explained Markus Hochstrasser from the Zurich Plant Protection Service at the media conference. The situation is similar for onions, radish, sugar beet, corn, and rapeseed. With a lack of crop protection solutions, productivity in the field is declining, and food waste and crop failures are increasing, Hochstrasser sums up.

In medicine, as in agriculture, resistance management is essential. As a rule of thumb in crop protection, three different active ingredients are needed for each crop disease or pest, otherwise, resistances will appear. This has long since ceased to be the case in Switzerland, where resistances are the result of the overuse of the few remaining active substances. This is dangerous because the farmers are then left empty-handed. It is a waste of both the harvest and the invested resources.

Research into new crop protection products is challenging. It takes 8 to 12 years to research a new active substance and have it ready for the product licensing procedure. It takes another eternity for the active substance to reach farmers in Switzerland, if at all. Currently, 783 applications are pending, but according to the federal offices, only 100 applications can be processed per year. The authorities therefore take it upon themselves to prioritize applications according to their preferences—and thus intervene in competition among crop science companies.

This situation is threatening the productivity of Swiss farmers. The self-sufficiency rate is decreasing. But there is a simple solution. In the same way that Switzerland withdraws any crop protection products that lose their EU license from the market, it could also recognize products that are licensed in the EU. However, Swiss farmers continue to face a host of bureaucracy-driven obstacles. Even in the famously rigid EU, the process works better: In line with the recommendations of the European Food Safety Authority, the EU Commission recently renewed the approval for glyphosate by 10 more years.

If you want agriculture to be holistically resource efficient and sustainable, you cannot deprive farmers of the necessary tools. Direct payments that subsidize the non-production of food by giving farmers incentives to abandon crop protection are the wrong way to go. Incidentally, the direct payment subsidy system in Swiss agriculture was introduced just 30 years ago. Today, however, it is reaching its limits, according to the anniversary press release. This makes it all the more important that direct payments are also used in a fiscally resource-efficient manner with purview to the federal treasury, promoting sustainable agriculture in all three dimensions. In other words, they cannot exclude productivity.

Otherwise, the result is officially subsidized food waste. More, not less, technology is required. A possible alternative is the PFLOPF project, in which 60 farmers use digital recognition and precision application to significantly reduce pesticide use. Knowledge sharing is important, but equally vital is the availability of modern crop protection products that enable the practical implementation of precision agriculture.

In the coming winter session, the Swiss parliament will also adopt the government budget. Because money is becoming scarcer at the Federal level, a battle for public funds has started. For the farmers, it’s a vicious circle. Policies are hindering agricultural productivity in many areas. Direct payment subsidies are being handed out for not producing food. At the same time, farmers are being beaten around the head with these subsidies in the political debate.

Only productive agriculture will allow us to break out of this vicious circle. Entrepreneurial agriculture produces closer to the market. It is resource efficient in a broad sense. It increases self-sufficiency rates through performance, rather than through state coercion. If this is what we want, bureaucratic overregulation and bans must be removed. Politicians need to let go and become more macro, less micro. Productivity is an achievement and not something to be ashamed of.

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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