Safe supply only on a scientific basis
The Social Democratic and Green majority in Zurich's municipal council wants to make agriculture climate-neutral. Or, as the Zurich-based newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) states: “In its mission to achieve net zero, the city now targets farting cattle.” Urban agriculture is to become as plant-based as possible. But the idea has yet to be developed further. And it raises the question of whether the desired transformation will be operationally successful. Knut Schmidtke, director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FibL), does not recommend that farms on traditional grassland make this transition, especially not if they are organic farms and thus the animals feed on the locally available pasture. While some parts of this transformation are possible, this would then result in dairy products and meat no longer being sourced from local organic farms in the Zurich area.
Such demands run counter to the needs of the consumers. The security of supply is becoming increasingly important for consumers, according to a survey by the Federal Office of Economics, which was published alongside the most recent Agricultural Report. And previous studies have demonstrated the importance of sourcing produce locally. The Agricultural Report, however, shows that the degree of self-sufficiency is falling slightly. This is due to population increases, production losses caused by fungal diseases in the wet summer of 2021, and the rise in extensive organic farms.
Zurich council's idea has yet another drawback: Arable crops are in danger. Fungi, pests, and competition from weeds lead to smaller yields. For many, it is an uncomfortable truth that anyone wishing to promote a plant-based diet must also concede to the use of plant protection products. Because plants need to be protected if their supply is to be properly ensured. This is also demonstrated by the sales statistics for plant protection products for 2021. Sales have increased. Nevertheless, the Federal Office of Agriculture expresses a certain relief in the title of its corresponding media release: “Risks of plant protection products decrease.”
There is one blot on the landscape, however: Copper sales doubled in 2021. Copper is approved for use in organic farming and, because other fungicides has been discontinued, it is also used in conventional farming. With regard to risk, the Federal Office of Food Safety and Veterinary Affairs (BLV) states in a footnote under the graph on sales volumes: “In accordance with the ‘Action plan on risk reduction and sustainable use of plant production products,’ active ingredients (...) or which persist in the soil (DT50 > 6 months) are considered to be active ingredients with a particular potential risk.” Precisely this applies to copper. Even though it is deftly glossed over, the 106% increase in copper sales means that the sale of a product with a significant potential risk has more than doubled. Another twist of irony: Copper, sulfur, and kerosene – other large-scale insecticides approved for use in organic farming and with increased sales in 2021 are all synthetic or contain synthetic components. There are deep cracks in the “back to nature” mantra.
You can't blame the farmers. They need tools to protect their crops so that they can ensure agricultural productivity and security of supply. Without these, food waste starts in the field. And when the market authorization process for modern plant protection products takes too long, they have to resort to old methods.
The regional newspaper “Aargauer Zeitung” asked in November, “whether this spelled the end for turnip lanterns,” known locally as ‘Räbeliechtli.’ As key plant protection products are being taken off the market, the turnips are less and less well protected against pests and diseases. This was another article that we summarized on swiss-food.ch. The lack of fungicides was also said to result in smaller pumpkins, as the Jucker Farm blog reports. Consumers, however, want big, beautiful pumpkins for Halloween.
The cultivation of Brussels sprouts in Switzerland is in decline. The reason for this is the steadily declining number of approved plant protection products. Cabbage fly and whitefly are causing problems for Swiss vegetable farmers. Whitefly larvae drink the sap of the plants and excrete undigested sugars onto the vegetables. This becomes “honeydew,” a sticky coating that covers the Brussels sprouts. This encourages the growth of sooty mold, which turns the vegetables black. Supermarkets and consumers are eschewing domestic produce in favor of imports. The degree of self-sufficiency suffers as a result, and Swiss farmers lose out.
According to the Swiss farming periodical “BauernZeitung,” the Federal Government will no longer be approving a whole range of active ingredients as of 2023. This will affect important crops such as maize, rape, sunflowers, peas, and sugar beet and, combined with the slow market authorization process for new plant protection products, will have fatal consequences for agricultural productivity. The result will be an increase in crop damage and a squandering of financial, energy, land, and labor resources.
The Fribourg newspaper “La Liberté” reports that around 700 plant protection products are currently awaiting market authorization by the Swiss Federal Government and refers to the major parliamentary question by Council of States member for Thurgau, Jakob Stark (SVP), which points out that German wine growers were better able to protect their crops from downy mildew than their Swiss neighbors in 2021. The reason? A new plant protection product had been approved for use in the EU. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the applications continue to pile up. It simply makes no sense that the authorities in Bern still want to review everything themselves, when numerous EU experts have already performed a review in accordance with international standards. And when Swiss NGOs block the market authorization of plant protection products for years with their criticism of precisely these recognized standards. Even the 2023 budget's proposed increase in the number of officials working on market authorization applications in Switzerland will do little to alleviate the situation. Most surprising in this regard is the asymmetry that exists: If the EU withdraws a product from the market, Switzerland immediately follows suit. The same logic does not apply to market authorizations.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the Swiss Science Council SSC concludes that policymakers must take greater account of scientific findings, especially during crises. Crises in this sense are wars, epidemics, global warming, migratory flows, as well as goods and power shortages. “What we are observing today is not one, but several crises interacting in complex ways. Therefore, the role of science in policy must be strengthened on various levels,” explains Sabine Süsstrunk, president of the Swiss Science Council SSC. Scientific findings are, after all, the basis for innovation and must not be ignored by the agricultural industry.
One thing is clear: Science will play a major role in the transition to a sustainable food system. A system that is necessary because the world’s population is growing, and up to 50 percent more food must be produced in a smaller area if we are to feed everyone. All of this presupposes that science will continue to remain the focus of political decision-making. Regulations must aim to minimize risks while, at the same time, contributing to progress and innovation. Otherwise, the justified demands of the population for safe, healthy, tasty, and affordable food will be incompatible with environmental and climate policy goals.
In an article in “Tages-Anzeiger,” “Without genetic engineering we will lose valuable time” Etienne Bucher, plant researcher at Agroscope, says that traditional breeding techniques alone will not be sufficient to increase crop yields in the age of climate change: “The climate is changing rapidly and we must act fast to ensure that plants keep pace with this change. Using traditional breeding techniques would take too long, however. It takes about 15 years to develop a new variety. This is one of the reasons why it's no longer viable to increase yields using traditional techniques.”
That is why there is currently so much discussion of new breeding technologies. Because this is a new concept and a variety of different terms are circulating, we explain them for you on swiss-food.ch. The same old arguments are trotted out time and time again in opposition to new breeding technologies. That's why we have summarized the most important answers in a Q&A.
The progress made in breeding techniques is becoming more and more of a reality. Climate change is resulting in more droughts. In Argentina, a drought-tolerant wheat was approved in 2021 and can now be cultivated. And farmers in the Philippines can now harvest golden rice for the first time. This rice has been fortified with a beta-carotene gene that the human body is able to convert into vitamin A. The aim is to put an end to the widespread vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. This in turn can reduce child mortality. It will also help to avert blindness of millions of children. For Ingo Potrykus, the researcher at ETH Zurich who in 1992 had the idea of fortifying rice with vitamin A, it is a great satisfaction to know that scientific evaluation has won out over ideology, as the NZZ writes. But he and many of his colleagues are still angry that through all the years of fierce opposition by Greenpeace, millions of children suffered and died. ETH Zurich continues to research and has already developed rice and wheat varieties that are fortified not just with beta-carotene, but also with zinc and iron, providing essential nutrients for pregnant women and mothers in developing countries. Because the fact is that people in many parts of the world are malnourished or undernourished because they cannot afford vegetables and fruit. Optimized foods that are fortified with micronutrients will play a key role in feeding the world's population in a comprehensive and sustainable manner. This was the subject of the most recent Swiss-Food Talk.
To sum up: Just because in this country we can afford to buy vegetables and fruit, that does not mean we should be opposed to healthy alternatives for the less privileged elsewhere in the world. And just because we think we can import everything, that does not mean we should do without modern plant protection solutions for our own agricultural industry. And last but not least: Just because we consider ourselves and the EU as superior, does not mean that we can dictate how other countries should protect their own harvests. Climate conditions, cultivated crops, and types of farming continue to differ across the world and there are good reasons why market authorization applications for plant protection products in Europe are not submitted or renewed. An initial step in the right direction would be if we listened a little less to activist groups who simply run campaigns, lobby for export bans and impede innovation through the right of associations appeals offering no solutions of their own, and if instead we listened a little more to science.
The swiss-food editorial team