rethink sustainability

    Swiss farming – a pioneer in sustainable agriculture – an interview with Michel Darbellay, Swiss Farmers’ Union

    The CLIC® Chronicles: Swiss farming – a pioneer in sustainable agriculture – an interview with Michel Darbellay, Swiss Farmers’ Union

    Our current food system is nothing short of a miracle. Yet it poses an enormous challenge in terms of sustainability. More than a third of the world’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and agriculture is contributing to the loss of biodiversity on a global scale. According to the UN, 1 in 8 animal or plant species is threatened with extinction.1 It is therefore crucial to rethink our agricultural systems and move towards a more sustainable, nature-positive model.

    Fortunately, international policy has already stepped in with support from farmers all over the world. This is evident in Switzerland where significant measures have been in place for a number of years and where the agricultural sector has to meet stringent standards. The country focusses on the adoption of sustainable production techniques that are aimed at reducing the sector’s environmental footprint.

    We talked to Michel Darbellay, a Board Member and Head of Production, Markets and Ecology at the Swiss Farmers’ Union (SFU). He deftly outlines the issues, challenges and constraints the sector faces today alongside solutions that are in place and on the horizon. 

    Our agricultural model is based on family farming, which allows us to be geared towards sustainability

    How are Swiss farmers better positioned today than in other countries? And how are they responding to the challenges posed by greenhouse gas emissions?

    Agriculture tends to bear the brunt of criticism whenever climate issues are discussed. And so we are often presented with the image of a sector that is heavily industrialised and thus assume that this applies to Switzerland. This image does not reflect our reality, however. In Switzerland, agriculture is governed by a stringent framework of regulations and safeguards designed to avoid this fate. Our agricultural model is based on family farming, which allows us to be geared towards sustainability. Hence farming in Switzerland has reduced its footprint over the last few decades. This is not to say that we don’t have further to go but we are on the right path. 

    Of course, the agricultural sector is concerned about biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Without biodiversity, production is compromised. It is true that greenhouse gases are among the causes of climate change. But agriculture is also the victim of extreme weather events such as drought and bad weather.

    It is in everyone’s interest to take this problem very seriously – which is precisely what we are doing. At the same time, we cannot, overnight, right the wrongs of the past, nor can we change a way of life that has evolved dramatically with urbanisation, increasing traffic and the growth in mobility. There are also strong price pressures. Today there is a constant conflict between two goals: achieving more sustainable production and withstanding international competition. For us, it is only if production is profitable that it can be sustainable.

    There is another major challenge worth highlighting if we are to tackle greenhouse gas emissions: the fight against food wastage. Our society is far too wasteful. Thirty percent of the food produced ends up in the bin! If we are able to solve this problem it would be a huge leap towards sustainability.

    We are all accustomed to seeing supermarket shelves laden with products and weekly special offers. Food needs to be accorded its proper value and appreciated

    CLICagriculture_ArticleLOcom_1.jpgMichel Darbellay, Board Member and Head of Production, Markets and Ecology at the Swiss Farmers’ Union (SFU)

    How can this be done?

    We need to raise awareness, encourage people to understand and try to be more responsible. The food we buy tends to be packaged or packed, often discounted, and people are not necessarily aware of what goes into its production and what is behind the finished product. We are all accustomed to seeing supermarket shelves laden with products and weekly special offers. Food needs to be accorded its proper value and appreciated.

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    Have any initiatives already been adopted and launched to meet the challenges facing Swiss agriculture?

    Swiss agriculture has been a pioneer. Switzerland has introduced successive agricultural reforms since the nineties. They include direct payments and production in compliance with strict rules on agroecological farming practices with, for instance, the practice of crop rotation. There are no monocultures in Switzerland!

    Farmers in Switzerland are also required to allocate a minimum of 7% of their total farmland for biodiversity. Today 20% is allocated: so farmers have gone above and beyond their obligation. That means that one square metre out of every five today is devoted to ecology and biodiversity. It is quite disappointing, however, to see that in spite of all these efforts biodiversity is not improving as fast as we would like.

    Numerous projects are being rolled out. We have, for example, set up an agency called AgroCleanTech to help improve energy efficiency and minimise climate change. It provides energy and climate solutions to help farmers make necessary adaptations. We have been successful with energy, with heat recovery and with measures related to the economy and electricity. Agriculture can also devise ways of enhancing development through carbon credits.

    Read also: The CLIC® Chronicles: Meet Phenix: the start-up helping everyone fight food waste


    What do you think is the reason for this inertia?

    Nature needs time. Time to settle, to restore the balance. Then there are all the other effects: traffic, light pollution, urbanisation. Where are the country’s largest agricultural regions with the greatest potential? On the Swiss plateau, where pressure from built-up areas, motorways, railway infrastructure and industrial parks is particularly intense. We have these conflicting goals that mean biodiversity does not always work as well as we might wish.

    The situation is being tackled with an agricultural action plan implemented at Swiss federal government level to reduce plant health risks to ecosystems, and risk management plans to limit the negative effects have been prepared. The agriculture sector is working along the lines of integrated crop management1 and we take preventive measures so we only use crop protection chemicals when strictly necessary. It’s a last resort.

    Farmers need to have sufficient financial flexibility to take risks with new production models

    Is there anything we can learn from agricultural practices in other countries that might be applied in Switzerland?

    In France there are fiscal provisions to protect against losses linked to climate-related events. The United States and Canada have crop insurance. This would be a very welcome addition because solutions like these can enhance agricultural resilience. For example, if farmers experience economic hardship when crops are decimated by adverse weather events, financial duress prevents them making the necessary investment into even more sustainable methods. Farmers need to have sufficient financial flexibility to take risks with new production models.

    What role do you think the financial and banking sectors should play? What can be done to support sustainable agriculture?

    Agriculture must be capable of taking on part of the risk involved. With price pressures, farmers inevitably veer on the side of caution and are uneasy about trying new ways of doing things. For example, the Swiss federal government has introduced production systems that encourage farmers to stop using insecticides and herbicides. This can be done to a certain degree. Still, there are years when this does not work, when pressure from disease and pests is excessive. In such cases it is necessary to avoid compromising production and to guarantee supply. To hedge against loss of income, there needs to be a safety net, either through state subsidies or help from the market, for example through food labelling, which is something we are calling for.

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    In the field of innovation, today we are seeing a growing need for new and extremely promising technologies like smart farming. But these technologies are very expensive, much more so than conventional machines. How can we encourage farmers to embrace this? We have to come up with new ideas so we can offer them more advantageous lending terms and support. If we really want to make access to this type of equipment more democratic, we need investment funds to support this transition, such as investment in agricultural research.


    Can you give us some examples of regenerative farming and AgTech in Switzerland?

    We have been practising regenerative farming, in different forms, in Switzerland for a few years now. There are requirements, for instance, linked to cover crops in order to prevent erosion, a phenomenon that is often underestimated and yet disastrous for farming. Cover crops improve the soil’s ability to hold nutrients and prevent nitrates, for example, from leaching. Cover crops, along with plants, can capture nitrogen from the air and enrich the soil with nitrogen to reduce the subsequent need for fertilisers, while making it possible to cut down on herbicide use. By using a combination of plant cover and manure, we can create organic matter which itself will be capable of sequestering carbon. 

    Read also: The CLIC® Chronicles: Meet FarmED – the farm putting soil first – part I


    Food brands, distributors, governments, consumers: what is the best way of working successfully with these stakeholders to attain a greater degree of sustainability?

    For us, it is essential to combine the three components of sustainability. Up until now, much has been said about sustainability, but often only in terms of the environment. However, there can be no sustainability without the other two aspects: social and economic.

    Responsible consumption leads de facto to responsible production

    Have you any examples of proposals to improve the lot of farmers in Switzerland?

    We need to be better at factoring production costs into product pricing. At the moment only one third of the retail price goes to the producer. And the more products are processed, the lower the producer’s remuneration. Consumers must be able to make an educated choice. What is important is clear product labelling that includes both the origin and production methods. Such a step would make consumers more aware when buying food. Responsible consumption leads de facto to responsible production.


    Do you think that the measures already taken in Switzerland could be adapted at an international level?

    Switzerland has a very extensive regulatory framework and one that must be adapted not only to the market but also to local reality. Would all these measures have been implemented without this regulatory framework? One may well wonder. Moreover, looking abroad we find that farming in certain countries is industrialised. It is no longer practised by farming families. Returns are what count. Under these conditions and pressures, it is even more difficult to implement the measures that we are familiar with in Switzerland. But before we arrive at an impasse, we hope that these countries will be inspired by some of our practices, just as we too will make sure to adopt good ideas from other countries.


    UN Report: Nature's Dangerous Decline 'Unprecedented'; Species Extinction Rates 'Accelerating' - United Nations Sustainable Development

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