Food for thought

Opinion: Does Swiss ‘fair food’ vote show limits of ethical consumerism?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

In polling reversal Swiss voters reject fair food proposals ©iStock/dk_photos
In polling reversal Swiss voters reject fair food proposals ©iStock/dk_photos
The Swiss electorate has overwhelmingly rejected two proposals on ethical and sustainable food, with concerns over the impact on price, competitiveness and trade dominating the debate.

Two nationwide polls – the latest food policy put to the Swiss direct democracy system - rejected proposals designed to boost ethical food production and local farming.

What was under consideration?

The farmer-union supported ‘Food Sovereignty’ initiative, if passed, would have radically changed Swiss agricultural policy. The ten-point plan outlined a vision of diversified and sustainable local agriculture based on family operated farms, free of GMOs, with an emphasis on job creation and competitive wages in food production.

It would have required the government to promote transparency of the internal market, encourage the establishment of ‘fair’ prices for farmers and strengthen regional infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the ‘Fair Food Initiative’ put forward by the Swiss Green Party aimed to impose strict environmental and social standards on food production.

If approved, the proposal would have pushed through an amendment to Swiss constitution specifying that the government promote a good quality, secure food supply produced with respect for the environment and animals as well as offering fair working conditions.

The regulation would have applied to both Swiss and imported foods.

Government opposition highlighted challenges

The Swiss government – and the majority of mainstream political parties - opposed each proposal.

Regulators argued that the Food Sovereignty initiative could undermine innovation and competitiveness in the Swiss agri-food sector. In particular, the government argued that a ban on GMOs would put shackles on food sector R&D.

Significantly, ministers argued protectionist increase in import taxes called for under the measure would represent a risk for the Swiss economy, jeopardising Switzerland’s international agreements and raising the prospect of increased food prices.

On both proposals, the government argued that the additional rule and regulations were superfluous and could again increase costs.

Switzerland produces about half of its food requirements and Swiss food production already complies with stringent social and environmental requirements, the authorities insisted. The proposed changes would be “heavy and costly” for industry – and ultimately consumers.

Internationally, Swiss policy supports the formation of internationally agreed standards on food production – and the government said it would be a near-Herculean task to monitor overseas production standards.

Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann had called the proposals "dangerous" and said they could trigger tariff increases and other reprisals from trading partners.

Public opinion about-face

Ahead of last week’s votes, opinion polling showed that the policies were popular among voters. In particular, people said they backed additional support for local farmers to reverse the decline in the number of Swiss family farms seen in recent years.

Pollsters also found proposals for Swiss animal welfare and sustainability standards to be imposed on importers were well liked.
However, when it came to the final vote, it seems there was a considerable gap between support for the principles outlined and a willingness to actually foot the bill. The electorate, it transpired, was reluctant to risk the prospect of higher prices and increased red tape.

In a poll that attracted a below-average low turnout (37%), only 38.7% of voters backed the Fair Food initiative, while just 31.6% supported the Sovereign Food plan.

The result, it would seem, shows the limitations of ethical consumerism. Shoppers say they want fair food – but the choice between conscience and wallet is a difficult one.

Fair food still on the agenda

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that sustainability and agricultural policy in Switzerland remain on the political agenda.

Last week’s ballots came 12 months after voters overwhelmingly backed a constitutional amendment to support local food production and food security.

A number of other votes on Swiss agriculture are pending. In November, voters will return to the ballot box to have the final say on a proposal to stop cattle farmers de-horning livestock. Additionally, on animal welfare, an initiative against intensive large-scale livestock farming was launched last June.

Meanwhile, two other votes on the use of pesticides in agriculture – including the controversial herbicide glyphosate – will also be put to the vote.

Related topics Policy Views Sustainability

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