1 May 2015

Is food security an issue for Switzerland?

Around the world the resources for agricultural production – soil, water, biodiversity - are under pressure as the population increases and climate change affects the poorest countries where a high percentage of income is spent on food. Poverty and increasing food prices are leading drivers of food insecurity.

Bernard Lehmann, director of the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture, painted this global picture at a Brown Bag seminar at the WTI on 29 April. Food security is not currently an issue for Switzerland, he said, but as global citizens the Swiss cannot ignore it.

The real question is what Switzerland can do to ensure global food security and a future for the more than 9 billion people that will populate the planet by 2050.

Allowing market access to imports was one area outlined. The Swiss market is small and hard to access for developing countries because it is protected by the highest tariffs in the world. According to WTI senior researcher Christian Häberli, who gave the introduction, Swiss protectionism harms developing countries that face dumped food imports and whose exports are put at a disadvantage, thereby impacting negatively on their own food security.

Lehmann pointed out that although Swiss subsidies to farmers had been substantially reduced over the past two decades they remained high, amounting to CHF 40,000 per farm every year. This led to a production structure that was not competitive in international comparison. Farms could successfully switch to producing other food specialities with a “Swissness bonus” if subsidies were cut and borders were opened, he said.

Reliable access to international food markets is also likely to be a requirement of developing countries whose food production is affected by climate change or loss of fertile soil, Lehmann said. The food crisis of 2008/9 had shown that in times of trouble most countries focused on their own consumers, ignoring the needs of other countries. In this case, the knock-on effect of bad harvests in Brazil and Australia prompted Ukraine and Russia to block grain exports, leading to short supply on international markets and consequently to skyrocketing prices.

Although not comparable in size to Russia or Ukraine, Switzerland does have an impact on global markets and therefore a responsibility, the director of the Federal Office for Agriculture said. Switzerland buys foodstuffs from other countries worth CHF 15 billion per year, a value equal to the GDP of Mozambique.

Summing up his recommendations for increasing global food security, Lehmann made a case for protecting the resources needed for global production such as fertile soil; efficient use of resources in line with local capacity; a competitive agriculture and food industry; access to international food markets, and resource efficient consumption avoiding food waste.

Click here to watch a WTI/NCCR film on food security featuring Dr Häberli.