“We prefer to work with nature. And you can taste that.”
That’s the motto of Swiss organic farmers, and the reason they are hosting a cow marathon as of May 27th. Its purpose: to show that cows from organic farms in Switzerland get to walk around in nature a ton. Thus, 10 contenders will be given GPS systems and the winning cow will be the one that first reaches the marathon distance of 42.195 km. You can bet on your favorite cow and win a 3 day vacation on an organic farm if you are right, so head on over if you are in the area!
I grew up in Switzerland around cows just like that and have to say that this experience decidedly influenced my perception of what agriculture is (and maybe should be). Living in a small village, taking walks next to fields with grazing cows and going on hikes just to find cows high up in the Alps (and taking care not to step into their droppings) felt as natural as listening to the ringing of the cows’ bells in the evening when they were brought back into their stables for the night. Imagine my surprise when I realized that this is not the average method of dairy farming! However, that bucolic idyll does come at a certain cost (which might well be worthwhile..) to consumers and taxpayers. Here are some other fun facts about the Swiss agricultural system that I gathered when writing an essay about the differences in EU and Swiss agricultural policy reform:
- Over 70% of Swiss farmland comprises meadows and pastureland, and around one-third of Swiss agricultural production surface is just alpine pasture. This explains why meat and dairy products (cheese!) are so important for Swiss agriculture.
- Swiss agricultural policy is maybe best known for its high level of domestic producer support: in 2011, 54% of total agricultural production value was based on political subsidies (according to the OECD “Producer Support Estimate”), compared to 17% in the EU. In fact, roughly 100% of net farm incomes are currently covered by agricultural subsidies.
- This means that Swiss citizens are paying farmers not only in the supermarket, but also through their taxes – a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation on my part showed that on average, the next Swiss farm bill will cost each taxpayer around 437 Francs per year; in the EU, each citizen would pay 110 Euros (using population estimates, so the actual amount would be even higher if we considered only taxpaying citizens).
- On the flipside, Switzerland is famous for having some of the best environmental regulations. The enforcement of its “proof of ecological performance”, environmental rules farmers have to fulfill to be eligible for direct payments, is also notably stricter than in other European countries.
- Furthermore, it is also notable that in 1996, Swiss people voted on a constitutional amendment that defined six objectives that agriculture should meet in the country. With the new Agricultural Policy 2014 to 2017, direct payments will now be attributed according to farmers’ compliance in contributing to each of these objectives:
- There will be contributions for cultivated landscape to maintain open landscapes and prevent the abandonment of production surfaces;
- contributions for ensuring food supply to maintain adequate food production capacities and assure a minimum self-sufficiency level;
- contributions for biodiversity to maintain and promote species diversity;
- contributions for landscape quality to maintain and develop diverse landscapes;
- contributions for production systems to support ecofriendly production systems (e.g. organic or animal-welfare enhancing housing);
- and contributions to enhance resource efficiency.
This seems to be an interesting initiative to ensure that public policy goals are actually met. However, as some commentators noted, the encouragement to even greater public service provision by farmers might be small since most of the current direct payment funds are being rerouted into the “ensuring food supply” pool which rewards farmers simply for producing (under proof of ecological performance conditions) and not for the other eco-friendly or biodiversity-related measures.
What is your opinion on the Swiss farming system? Is it an unreasonably high price to support agricultural producers like this, or should farming in relatively difficult topographic conditions be encouraged in order to meet the above goals which the Swiss people chose?
Bonus: I had a pretty hard time finding up-to-date information on the Swiss policy reform in English online, so just in case anybody is interested in how it compares to the CAP 2020, here is the essay that I just handed in: Differences EU and Switzerland. It’s a pretty short piece, but maybe it’s useful anyhow! I’d just appreciate if you cited it as the academic (unpublished) work that it is if you would like to use it further.