Reconciling agriculture and ecology – The Courier

In September, a (small) part of the inhabitants of our country once again manifested themselves about the agricultural world with the initiative “No to intensive agriculture”. This vote is part of a broader context of questioning the agricultural world, marked among other things by numerous initiatives in recent years as well as by a hardening of positions. What if the tensions between the agricultural world and ecology masked a deeper problem?

It is clear that these various initiatives were largely ethically and ecologically justified – which, according to surveys, resulted in massive acceptance rates before the start of the respective campaigns. In fact, today’s agriculture has many problems. Thus, even though the quantities of pesticides have decreased significantly in recent decades, the Federal Institute for Water Research (Eawag) reported a few years ago that it had found a “cocktail of pesticides in Swiss waters” and “that much of the current pollution by pesticides was attributable to crop protection products used in agriculture.” For its part, the Federal Office for the Environment reports that “all sectors combined, it is in the agricultural sector that methane and nitrous oxide emissions are the highest “, two gases whose greenhouse effect is much greater than that of carbon dioxide.

a complicated situation

We must also remember that Switzerland has to import about half of its food and that half is produced in Switzerland thanks to massive imports of oil and other inputs from the oil industry, in particular fertilizers, or that animals – although “our” farms remain less gigantic than those of some of our neighbors – they don’t live in conditions that could reasonably be described as respectful.

No ethical reason can justify soil, air and water pollution, animal abuse, exploitation of people or nature – here or elsewhere – let alone one that consists of saying that it is worse elsewhere. Even if this is correct, this relativistic logic is not an ethically acceptable justification. Our agriculture must, without a doubt, evolve towards a much more respectful way of working with human beings and nature.

However, it is undeniable that the situation of farmers is difficult. Thus, a thousand farms disappear every year in Switzerland, that is to say two or three a day. In twenty years, a third of Swiss farms have disappeared. People working in agriculture also have lower earnings than those in other sectors, although they work longer hours on average.

Official salaries in the agricultural sector vary from 3,300 francs a month for a temporary or inexperienced employee to 6,300 francs for a farm manager with more than five years experience, graduated from a higher school, for about fifty hours of work a week.

In early September, an RTS survey also denounced “shocking working conditions in Swiss agriculture”, stating that “to cope with seasonal peaks, some farmers turn to foreign workers employed and housed in squalid conditions and paid less than 15 francs an hour. The survey reports an average income for a farm manager of around 5,000 francs a month, well below the average Swiss salary, which is around 6,500 francs. There are, however, very strong differences between, for example, the large farms in the plains that generate comfortable incomes and the small peasantry in the mountains that can live well below the social minima.

Furthermore, if the issue of peasant suicide has been widely discussed in several countries (in France or India, for example), there seems to be a lack of statistics in Switzerland. An article by female however, it pointed out three years ago, based on a publication by the University of Bern, that “the risk of suicide is 37% higher among peasants than among the rest of the Swiss population”. Deputies were also moved by the health of farmers in an interpellation to the Federal Council stating that “according to a study carried out in 2017 by Agroscope and the University of Applied Sciences in Zurich, farmers are more victims of depletion than the average population .

low productivity

The situation of men and women farmers is really complicated. The selling prices of its products have hardly changed for several decades, pressured by international competition and pressure from distribution giants such as Coop and Migros, while its production costs are high and constantly increasing due to the relative smallness of the farms, the cost of labor and inputs and those linked to meeting standards that are often insufficient but generally stricter than elsewhere. The share of the budget that Swiss families devote to food continued to decline, having fallen below 10%, i.e., the lowest proportion any society has ever devoted to food.

To understand this situation, we must remember that the share of GDP due to agriculture is decreasing. According to the Economiesuisse, “Agriculture and forestry represent 3.1% of our country’s active population, but contribute 0.7% of total economic output. This gap translates into relatively low labor productivity of around CHF 45,000 per full-time position (in 2016), or about a third of the average productivity in the Swiss economy.”

This quote sheds some light on the problem. The Swiss economy depends mainly on the export of services (banking and insurance), high value-added products (chemicals, precision mechanics) and needs a major opening of world markets so that Credit Suisse, Zurich Insurance or Syngenta can sell their products internationally . In return, Switzerland must open up its own market, for example, for agricultural products in which it is handicapped by its geographical and social reality.

It must therefore try to reconcile the irreconcilable, not being able to afford to protect its agriculture too much (which would risk closing the markets to it), but not being able to let it go completely, it must find a way to support it without this resulting in aid that would cause unacceptable “distortions” in the eyes of the World Trade Organization. It therefore pays subsidies to farmers (on the order of 3 to 4 billion francs per year, which mainly benefit agro-industry, large retailers and some lowland agro-industries), in exchange for “systemic services”, such as the protection of biodiversity and landscapes .

Since the price of agricultural products is too low, farmers can no longer do without these subsidies, which on average represent half of the income of a farm. On the other hand, standards and services are imposed on them that often do not correspond to the idea they have of their own work…nor to the reality advertised in advertising!

Butter or butter money

The two fields that thus collide with agriculture in an increasingly virulent way are therefore wrong and right at the same time. Most peasants are wrong when they refuse to see that current agriculture is unsustainable, but they are right to be concerned about its future. Ecologists are right to criticize current agriculture, but many are wrong to not recognize peasant realities and difficulties. The latest votes – with sometimes very aggressive campaigns – have deepened these differences, while the basic problem is quite simple: we can’t have the butter and the money for the butter. The problems of agriculture are not those of peasants and peasants, but of society as a whole. We have the agriculture we deserve!

However, we cannot have a productivist agriculture that allows us to dedicate only a fraction of our budget to our food and ask it to respect high social and ecological conditions. “Modern” agriculture is simply not compatible with ecology. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the industrial system and respect for nature and human beings.

The necessary conciliation between agriculture and ecology requires, therefore, a change of system, so that we move towards societies in which this fundamental area, the production of our food, recovers the central place that it should have maintained. In the short term, the development of short circuits and direct contacts between producers and consumers seems to be one of the most promising paths. But in the medium and long term there will be no real solution without an exit from capitalism. It’s a question of living more simply, of dedicating much more time and resources to agriculture – and, therefore, doing without other things – to reconcile quality products with respect for human beings and nature. And for the construction of this new world, peasants and ecologists can only join together.

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