The ‘sovereign food’ initiative proposes limiting cross-border trade in foodstuffs and severely regulating the domestic market. The negative consequences of this would be borne both by consumers and producers, writes Regine Sauter.
Why not be sovereign over our own food? The proposal certainly sounds positive. Yet the effects of the initiative “for food sovereignty” would be very hard to digest. The initiative calls for a level of state intervention and control that would lead to an agriculture sector dominated by small farmers and cut off from the outside world.
The federal government is being called upon to restrict imports of foodstuffs with duties and limits on quantities, and even to forbid some imports altogether. Genetic technology is also to be banned. Prices for agricultural products would be state-controlled, while new subsidies would also be introduced.
Finally, the federal government would be bound to intervene in the labour market, to increase the numbers working in agriculture.
The initiative was launched by the left-wing and green farmers’ union Uniterre along with some 70 other organisations.
The starting point is basic opposition to the federal agricultural policy, which in the last 20 years has brought about a gradual opening up of markets. The initiative aims to guarantee farmers a higher income and bring more people back to the agricultural sector.
The trend towards fewer and larger farming operations is also being tackled here. In fact, advocates of the initiative are less worried about healthy milk and carrots and more concerned about protecting and isolating Swiss agriculture.
A planned economy
Such demands for a protectionist approach and state intervention are extremist and threaten the free-market economy of Switzerland. The socialist notion of enabling the state to set “fair prices” and guarantee supplies of foodstuffs flies in the face of a free-market economy and – as earlier and current instances show – has never worked.
We can expect rising prices for foodstuffs, something that will weaken the competitiveness of the food industry and penalise consumers – especially less-well-off households – to a disproportionate extent. The additional subsidies envisaged by the initiative would also add a burden to the taxpayer.
Free trade at risk
With the agricultural sector cut off from foreign imports, prices will rise and the range of products on offer will decrease. Also, with the tariff barriers proposed by the plan, Switzerland would fail to meet its international obligations. These include WTO rules, existing free trade agreements, and important bilateral agreements with the EU. What’s more, it would become almost impossible for the country to enter into any new free trade deals.
This aspect, which may not seem alarming for people tired of hearing about globalisation, is a real threat to the economy as a whole and to prosperity in Switzerland. It must not be forgotten that Switzerland earns every second franc abroad. Jobs and income depend on this.
With its call for less porous borders, the sovereign food initiative has much in common with the “fair food” initiative, which is to be voted on at the same time and which should also be rejected. Problems with trade policy and rising prices are the inevitable outcome of this initiative, too.
Towards a forward-looking agricultural policy
When it comes to international trade, the idea of food sovereignty is a big mistake: we cannot meet all our domestic needs without imports. Even our animal feed, seeds, plants and manure come largely from other countries.
The initiative shows a certain amount of displeasure at the structural changes happening in agriculture. But although it may be painful to have to give up a family farm – just as businesses in many other sectors have had to grapple with similar challenges – our economy simply cannot afford an ultra-protectionist agricultural approach.
Farmers can remain successful if they confront new challenges with entrepreneurial flair, if they develop their business and market innovatively. At the same time, politicians need to encourage a market-orientated agricultural approach, which primarily means orientated towards the demands and needs of consumers. This requires creating incentives for farms to be able to market high-quality products profitably, even in cross-border markets. And the only thing that will help here is a loosening of trade barriers.
The potential for success using this kind of approach is shown in Austria, for example, where a once-isolated agricultural economy is now to a great extent open to other EU member-states. The Swiss cheese market, also mainly open, is another example.
No to this initiative
To sum up: food sovereignty is a vision that comes with costly consequences for all and benefits for but a few. Among the basic success factors behind Swiss prosperity are borders open to trade, an attractive business environment and a low level of regulation.
If you appreciate all of this, say no on September 23 to the popular initiative “for food sovereignty”.
swissinfo.ch publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.
Translated from French by Terence MacNamee, swissinfo.ch, swissinfo.ch