May. 13, 2021
A greenhouse in Kerzers FR, in the middle of Switzerland's vegetable chamber. This is where grower Michael Moser runs his business, growing cucumbers and tomatoes, among other things, under glass. Moser is currently worried about the tomatoes, which are threatened by a virus - and it's not Corona. But even more, Moser is worried about the future of his farm and vegetable growing in Switzerland.
On 13 June 2021, there will be two referenda in Switzerland, determining how Switzerland will feed itself in the future. It is about the two agricultural initiatives “For a Switzerland without chemical pesticides” (pesticide-free initiative) and “For clean drinking water and healthy food – no subsidies for the use of pesticides and prophylactic antibiotics” (drinking water initiative).
If successful it would ban all crop protection products containing substances that do not exist in nature. Swiss voters will also decide on a second clean drinking water initiative which wouldn't totally ban chemical crop protection, but would stop growers who use them from claiming government subsidies.
Moser says these initiatives are currently hanging over the horticultural industry like a sword of Damocles.
"If a crop protection product is banned, there has to be a solution on how to keep fixing the problem," Moser says. Otherwise, he says, it becomes difficult to supply. "Entire fields have been destroyed because of a few aphids or some fungal infestation, since otherwise they can spread undisturbed."
He understands the concerns of the initiators, says Moser. And as taxpayers, they have the right to exert influence. And the concern for nature is also plausible for him. "But the path via the referenda is the wrong one and would shift the problems abroad," says Moser.
No effective remedy: Brussels sprouts in decline
He has one example ready: Brussels sprouts. When the authorities stopped allowing an insecticide a few years ago, the whitefly spread rapidly. With the excreted sooty mold, it left behind the perfect breeding ground for a fungus. The consequences were a drop in the quality of the Brussels sprouts and yield losses. In the first year, wholesalers were still lenient and accepted minor defects. In the second year, this was no longer the case and wholesalers preferred to buy perfect-looking Dutch products, says Moser.
As a result, only 25 hectares of Brussels sprouts are now grown in the region instead of the previous 60 hectares, because alternative control methods such as sucking off the flies worked more poorly than well. For Moser, it is therefore clear: "It is hypocritical if we simply shift production abroad." He sees Brussels sprouts as a cautionary example of how other vegetable crops could fare as well.
In contrast to Michael Moser, Hans-Ulrich Müller is an organic producer. He runs a farm in Bibern SO together with his son. But like Moser, Müller - president of Biogemüse Schweiz - is fighting against the two initiatives. In his view, the initiatives are unfair. "Professional production is massively regulated and restricted, while on the consumer side everyone can continue to do what they want," Müller criticizes. He also considers the fact that the drinking water initiative does not address imports to be completely inconsistent.
"Society has a problem: agriculture is a scapegoat now"
"Basically, we have a problem with society. Our lifestyle pollutes the environment with a wide variety of substances. And now agriculture is the favorite scapegoat, being singled out and pilloried," Müller said. But as a voter, it is of course much easier to label the scapegoat than to change one's own behavior. He thinks little of promises and assurances made by consumers: "These always last until a cheaper supplier comes along."
Müller is also critical of retailers and wholesalers. These screwed the quality requirements ever more highly, also with bio commodity. "In the meantime, the buyers no longer know any measure," said the organic producer.
For Hans-Ulrich Müller, however, agriculture is not out of the woods. It must ask itself how it could have come into the field of fire in such a way. "Conventional agriculture and especially its associations relied for years on the status quo," Müller criticized. Previous cultivation and animal husbandry methods were hardly questioned for a long time, he says. He is convinced that the many social building sites can only be solved together. Partial hair-splitting exercises would be of no use.
As a vegetable producer, Michael Moser is not directly dependent on governmental payments. According to Moser, they account for about 1.5 to 3% for the farms. So, exit from the direct payment system if the drinking water initiative is accepted? He cannot judge that conclusively, says Moser. The question is also what the customers would then demand. What is clear to him is that he does not want to give up his farm just like that.
Major campaign by the associations
The Bern Fribourg Vegetable Producers Association and the Bern Fruit Association are spending around 100,000 francs on their No campaign, trying to convince consumers to answer no to the referenda. "Not because we want to splurge, but because we are committed to healthy, fresh and regional food," said National Councilor Nadja Umbricht Pieren, president of the GVBF. The initiative is extreme, radical and dangerous, she said. It endangers a large part of the vegetable and fruit farms in the region, she added.
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