The need for transparency in Swiss agriculture


International Law

This summer, the forausblog has teamed up with students from the Master’s course “Law of Sustainable Development” taught by Charlotte Sieber-Gasser at the University of Lucerne. Students were asked to come up with their very own ideas for policy measures that would render the presence of humankind on this planet more intra- and inter-generationally just. The policy measures have to work towards achieving one particular UN Sustainable Development Goal and need to be in line with international law. The best original policy measures were selected by Charlotte Sieber-Gasser and published by the forausblog.

Food, and especially meat consumption, is the most environmentally damaging consumption sector in Switzerland. Meat in Switzerland may seem pricey for consumers, but in fact most of the costs resulting from meat production are not included in the price tag. The majority of those costs are indirectly covered by Swiss taxpayers or are never accounted for, being hidden environmental and public health costs. Swiss agriculture would benefit from more transparency in terms of real production costs. Therefore, the establishment of a type of bookkeeping called True Cost Accounting (TCA) is necessary.

Livestock activities contribute an estimated 18 percent to total greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Greenpeace states that meat consumption should drop by 50 percent worldwide and even by 70 to 90 percent in Switzerland in order to achieve sustainable food habits. Nevertheless, Swiss agricultural policy promotes the consumption of meat which is in conflict with Switzerland’s commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels based on the Paris Agreement. Switzerland has one of the highest levels of agricultural subsidies consisting of tax breaks, direct federal and cantonal payments to the sector. An analysis by Avenir Suisse shows that on average 400’000 Swiss francs of tax money is spent per farm. Surprisingly, four-fifths of state support in agriculture goes towards animal production and over 70 percent of the state subsidies are either potentially, partially or fully harmful to biodiversity in Switzerland.

The agricultural food production has numerous impacts on and off the farm, many of which are not reflected in the market price. In contrast to the market price, true costs calculations of food include health and environmental costs as well as tax expenses which accrue in the production process. The latest studies reveal that consumers of Swiss beef bear just over a third of the actual costs. For pork, the amount is almost two-thirds and for poultry it is around three-quarters. In contrast, consumers have to pay 80 percent of the costs for vegetables and 90 percent for fruits. The Swiss nutrition strategy states that too much meat and too few cereal products, potatoes, legumes and vegetables are consumed. Nevertheless, meat consumers only pay a fraction of the cost while fruits and vegetables are proportionally more expensive. In addition, the Swiss government subsidizes meat advertising with millions of Swiss francs annually.

Several studies have tried to present results about the true costs of food in Swiss agriculture and make the food productions more transparent such as the study “true costs of food”. However, the results of the studies were highly criticized by the Swiss Farmer’s Union. Based on this controversy, an official study by the Swiss Confederation is required. Firstly, such a study should present how much the individual Swiss food items are – directly or indirectly – subsidized. Secondly, True Cost Accounting (TCA) should be used to visualize the true costs of the individual products produced by Swiss agriculture as suggested by many scientists and organizations including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. TCA is a method for measuring the true costs of different food productions accounting for their implications for society. It is a method of bookkeeping to assess the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of food production and makes these costs and benefits visible. TCA calculations not only include costs such as greenhouse gas emissions but also secondary effects of food production such as soil organic carbon loss, biodiversity loss and ecosystem service loss. Similar calculations have already been made for the transportation sector by the Federal Office for Spatial Development ARE and could be used as a baseline.

Agriculture is heavily climate-dependent and it is one of the first sectors to be affected by climate change and biodiversity loss. Therefore, the Swiss Farmer’s Union should have a strong interest in actively being involved in transparency measures. Transparency is key to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDG) which Switzerland has committed to, in particular, it supports goal 12 “responsible production and consumption”, goal 13 “climate action” and goal 15 “life on land”. Furthermore, the Swiss population is increasingly concerned about the quality of the environment which the upswing in the election of the Green Party of Switzerland demonstrates. Taxpayers want to know where their money is spent each year and which impact it has on the public health and the environment. The transparency in Swiss agriculture which could result from TCA can empower consumers to make more informed and more sustainable decisions. It fosters policymakers to incentivize sustainable agriculture and to have a fact-based discussion in the political arena. It is time to take ecological, medical, and social realities into account and to initiate a radical shift in the political incentive structures to achieve a desirable future.


Image credits: Pixabay.