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Pesticides divide Swiss farmers

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November 2019: the Swiss Union of Peasants (USP) meets in a general assembly. Its president, National Councilor Markus Ritter (PDC / SG), harangued the audience: “We have come to the end of a difficult year. The coming months will be no less. ” He could not have said better. It refers to two invisible enemies.

The “Clean Drinking Water and Healthy Food” initiative, which proposes removing subsidies from farms that use pesticides, preventively administer antibiotics to their animals or fail to feed them with what they produce. And the initiative “For a Switzerland free of synthetic pesticides”, which requires the prohibition of these products throughout the country. Both objects terrify the USP. Not the rest of the branch. And the debate escalates.

The counterpart that will never be one

Making the incessant political reversals in Swiss agriculture intelligible is complex, not to say Cornelian. Let’s try anyway. In 2018, two initiatives on which we will vote in June are tabled. In front of them, no counter-project. The Federal Council has recognized their merits, in particular as regards the “too high concentration of fertilizers or pesticides in the rivers of the regions”. But he recommended their rejection without alternative. What parliament followed. The Seven Sages, however, had a counterpart in mind, “a package of measures intended to reduce the impact on the environment linked to the use of fertilizers and pesticides within the new agricultural policy”. The latter is then in consultation.

On the same subject: The new agricultural strategy is only half convincing

Alas, the PA22 + – nickname given to the document – will never fulfill this role. On the agenda of the National Council this Tuesday, it should indeed be suspended. Like what the Council of States decided last year. Why? This is where things get tricky. The story of this postponement could be the subject of a special issue on its own. It all started in 2018: the PA22 + was born. Imperfect, like any political strategy, it is nonetheless welcomed by many. In particular the USP. “It is good that the Federal Council is tackling phytosanitary products”, then articulated Jacques Bourgeois (PLR / FR), its former director. It will make it possible to respond to the two aforementioned initiatives, he underlines. Environmentalists are half convinced but welcome certain provisions. A consensus seems achievable. The consultation of the circles concerned begins.

“Copy to review from top to bottom”

It is a success. Coop, Migros, the Federation of Swiss Food Industries, Agrarian Alliance, Economiesuisse, mountain farmers, Biosuisse: the majority support the strategy. This responds to the two aforementioned initiatives, seeks to support animal welfare, modernizes land rights and offers – much awaited – better social coverage for peasant women. As well as around CHF 14 billion in subsidies for the next four years. One crucial player, however, has changed its mind: the USP. “The copy is to be reviewed from top to bottom,” said the Union, which denounces, among other things, a loss of future income for its members. Enter the scene of an agreement that has become famous under the federal arcades. That of the financier and the farmer, of USP and Economiesuisse. The economic umbrella company had subscribed to the PA22 +. But she is worried. The initiative for responsible multinationals is gaining momentum and it needs allies.

On the same subject: Swiss agricultural discord

An exchange of good practices is decided. Economiesuisse will oppose PA22 + in exchange for USP support against the orange flag movement. Deal. The effects are immediate: in 2020, the Council of States – where Economiesuisse has very good links – is suspending the work of the parliament on PA22 +. Despite years of consultation, he demands a new report from the Federal Council on the subject. “It is not serious to work like this”, then gets carried away Guy Parmelin, in charge of the file, in front of the senators. Because this vote has just postponed the adaptation of agricultural policy for several years. Pending a new report, parliament should only be able to resume discussion in 2023, postponing the entry into force of a new plan until 2025, at the earliest. And here is why PA22 + will not act as a counterpart to the two June initiatives. And why the discord reigns within the agricultural world.

The climate at the center of the debate

“I am furious against the USP”, cowardly Kilian Baumann, organic farmer, member of the steering committee of small Swiss farmers (5000 members) and national advisor (Verts / BE). The Bernese do not mince his words about the strategy of the largest Swiss umbrella company. “USP no longer represents the interests of farmers but those of the food industry. Who wants us to continue producing in Switzerland as intensively as possible. I work the land and I support both initiatives. This is the last possibility we have left for our agriculture to move forward, to achieve the goals set by the Confederation in the Paris Agreement and to take better care of our soils. As the Federal Council also recommended. Otherwise nothing will move for years. ”

Read also: “Clean water”, the initiative which despairs the peasants

What about the very controversial obligation to feed our animals with what we produce? “The implementation of an initiative always gives rise to adaptations. In this specific case, ten years are foreseen. I understand that some producers are afraid. But everything depends on the application of the texts. The transition would also certainly be accompanied by the State. ” As for the PA22 +, the farmer underlines the absurdity of not going into substance while having to confirm the budget: nearly 14 billion. Because if the new strategy dodges the debates, the money must absolutely fall: without it, Swiss agriculture does not turn.

“Like all the other players in society, we also want to participate in the protection of resources,” defends Fritz Glauser, vice-president of USP and organic farmer in Friborg. Water pollution is not just the fault of farmers, we are all responsible. We are obviously opposed to the two initiatives, which were drafted far from the realities on the ground. But also to the PA22 +. These projects do not solve the problem, sharply reduce food production in Switzerland, increase imports and reduce our income. ”

Like the bourgeois parliamentary camp, the Fribourgeois believes that in the absence of a new five-year plan, a parliamentary initiative currently under negotiation will do the trick. Largely insufficient according to some Swiss farmers, this is aimed at a “pesticide reduction path”. Without PA22 + as a counterweight, will it be able to convince the population to oppose the ban on synthetic plant protection products? This is the bet made by the USP.

Read also: Franziska Herren: “Even by buying organic, I subsidize pollution”

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