Whether it’s climate change, a pandemic, or the war in Ukraine: crises also threaten the supply of food. In the latest issue of the University of Bern’s magazine, Sabin Bieri and Theresa Tribaldos of CDE therefore call for a move away from standardized food production and processing. As Theresa Tribaldos emphasizes, “If agrobiodiversity declines massively and fewer and fewer crop varieties are cultivated globally – that’s dangerous.”
Interview: Pieter Poldervaart*
Global trade of food has doubled since 1980. What has this meant for agricultural regions in the global South?
Sabin Bieri: We just recently completed the project “Feminization, Agricultural Transition and Rural Employment” on this topic. One finding was that people in the global South often go from the frying pan into the fire as a result of industrialized agriculture. As subsistence farmers, they were at the mercy of nature: droughts, floods, or pests could ruin their annual harvests. Today, they grow crops for export or work on large-scale farms. Instead of nature-based risks, their livelihoods are now threatened by volatile global markets. In the past, they could grow a variety of crops to minimize the risk of crop failures. But export-only agriculture leads them to emphasize just one or two crops, making it difficult to respond to price collapses. In contrast to Switzerland, farmers in the global South lack a social safety net.
And what does increased global trade mean for us?
Sabin Bieri: Thanks to booming global trade, we in the northern hemisphere benefit from maximum availability: strawberries and asparagus are also on offer at Christmas. Besides the social consequences mentioned earlier, these globalized food-supply chains complicate feedback loops.
What do you mean by this?
Sabin Bieri: The well-known politics of consumption – that is, bringing about real change by buying sustainable products – is not a bad approach. But the globalized food market makes it increasingly difficult to understand the consequences of food consumption and orient one’s own actions in line with sustainability. The world of consumption has become complicated and full of contradictions. We struggle to figure out whether it makes sense to buy Fairtrade roses from Kenya, or whether we’re hurting the incomes of Peruvian farmers if we avoid eating asparagus in February.
Theresa Tribaldos: Even in emerging economies, only a few people are benefitting from the booming globalization of food systems. This can be seen, for example, in Brazilian soy production. We see that these industrialized monocultures function as highly concentrated value chains.
What’s problematic about that?
Theresa Tribaldos: This concentration means that the fertilizer, machinery, seeds, trade, and processing are all controlled by a few companies. Small farmers and subsistence farmers are sometimes driven off their land or dispossessed and pushed into cities, where employment alternatives are often lacking. The increasing cultivation of agricultural commodities has many external costs that harm society as a whole – even if, according to official statistics, it spurs economic growth.
Still, in the last decade, there was a decline in the proportion of the world’s population suffering from hunger.
Sabin Bieri: I would place a big question mark there. Since 2014, the proportion of undernourished people has been on the rise again, against the expectations of the UN and the sustainable development goals. Additionally, these statistics set caloric requirements very low. And they give too little emphasis to the fact that we need not only calories, but also vitamins and minerals.
The consequences of the war in Ukraine have brought the issue of food security back to the forefront. Have supply chains always been fragile, and we in rich Switzerland simply didn’t notice?
Theresa Tribaldos: There have always been regional supply crises, but increasing globalization has created new networks and also intensified dependencies. When global supply chains break down, the impacts are quickly felt.
And new crises are arising all the time: climate crisis, pandemic, now war…
Theresa Tribaldos: …which mean that the phenomenon is assuming new dimensions. The crises and their impacts are multiplying. Many countries don’t have enough time to recover from each major event and stabilize the food supply of their population. What’s also new is that we’re no longer dealing with isolated incidents. The climate and biodiversity crises overlap, and we won’t be rid of them anytime soon.
Was everything better in the past? Do we need to go back to the sixties and seventies?
Theresa Tribaldos: We can’t, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway. Back then, the food system model we know today was launched: under the banner of a “green revolution”, the goal was to tackle world hunger as efficiently as possible, with high yields and low prices. The downside is all the social and environmental harms that don’t show up in the economic costs because they’ve been elegantly outsourced. Even today we think cheap food is possible – but it’s a huge deception. The real costs simply appear in the form of ecological damage, social problems, or health costs.
So, should we cease trading food internationally and go back to strengthening national agriculture?
Sabin Bieri: Trading food across borders can make sense. For example, when it comes to bringing particular nutrients to places where they’re unavailable. The key question is what our aim is. Is it just to skim as much profit as possible via mass production? That can’t be it. To become more resilient, our focus needs to be that of securing an adequate supply of healthy food.
Maximum self-sufficiency would make us especially resilient.
Sabin Bieri: Autarchy as the alternative to globalization is unrealistic. And we tend to overestimate our potential: Calorically, we have a self-sufficiency rate of around 60 percent in Switzerland. If you subtract the animal products we supply, in part, using concentrated feed from Brazil, then we’re only at 50 percent self-sufficiency. A certain amount of trade makes sense in order to help out when harvests are poor. It’s important not to mix up ends and means. Global trade is the means, not an end in itself.
But people have always traded to make money.
Sabin Bieri: Sure, and the trade of food has also brought progress. But the food security of one’s own population takes priority. The Asian Tiger countries set an example in the 1970s and 1980s: Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia first protected their economies in order to achieve greater resilience in their food supply. Only in a second step did they begin to rely on industrialization and food exports. Today, development in countries in southern Africa is taking a different course. Here, monocultures are being pushed for the sake of exports, without first ensuring domestic food security.
Theresa Tribaldos: Autarchy in Switzerland is an illusion. But the past few years have made it increasingly clear that a certain degree of self-sufficiency is desirable. It makes sense to question dependencies and try to reduce them. As long as we import goods, we should consciously aim to strengthen resilience and sustainability in the countries of origin. This also applies to traditional food exporters like the USA, Canada, or Ukraine. Their agriculture is dominated by massive monocultures that are anything but sustainable.
But at least food is being produced here on a large scale.
Theresa Tribaldos: Food production doesn’t strengthen our food security in every case: the soy and corn crops being grown are not used directly for food. Much of it ends up in the feed trough, processed into biodiesel or fructose syrup. This cheap sweetener is a key ingredient in highly processed, very unhealthy foods.
You mention the high sugar content in processed foods. Is the major prevalence of obesity in emerging economies like Mexico a result of this?
Theresa Tribaldos: To a great extent. The Western lifestyle is considered attractive in various places, and the food industry does a good job of marketing it. Highly industrialized food contains a lot of salt, unhealthy fats, and, above all, a vast amount of sugar. It acts like a drug: Initially, it triggers a feeling of happiness. Once this subsides, people want more. By loading up sweets and other processed foods with sugar, a loyal customer base is created. In addition, clean drinking water isn’t available everywhere in the world. When beverages must be bought, people don’t always choose the healthiest product – especially if addiction plays a role. And finally, even in emerging economies, many people don’t have time to prepare meals themselves.
Sabin Bieri: All this shows that eating is much more than food intake. It is a profoundly social practice. This is reflected in the value that we attach to the preparation of food and the work that goes along with it – often done by women in everyday life. Eating habits also indicate social status. The experience of our research partner in Bolivia highlights this. As laws protecting domestic workers are becoming stricter, the middle class is increasingly foregoing them. One side effect of this is that people are cooking less at home. People buy more fast food – and risk unhealthy eating.
In Mexico, companies even intervened directly when a sugar tax was being discussed.
Sabin Bieri: Food companies are heavyweights. Nestle’s annual profits are comparable to the gross national product of Luxembourg. The influence of these food empires on national regulations can scarcely be exaggerated. They also try to buy time and delay regulations as long as possible that would constrain their business model. We’ve seen this approach from the tobacco industry.
Whether Mexico, Bolivia, or Switzerland – food is available in practically the same quality all over the world. What does this do to the food system?
Sabin Bieri: This tendency competes with local food systems. Local producers can’t always achieve the same standards and are left sitting on their goods.
Theresa Tribaldos: And this, in turn, directly impacts the diversity of food, crop varieties, and ecosystems. Diversity is important for resilience. When there is a major decline in agrobiodiversity and fewer and fewer crop varieties are being cultivated worldwide, that’s a dangerous situation. The system becomes more vulnerable to pests, for example. Plus, the globalized goods are absolutely not affordable for all sections of the population.
Swiss cheese is available worldwide, and we export milk powder on a large scale. Should we rethink this?
Sabin Bieri: Based on its topography, our country is suited to animal agriculture. But we need to discuss what makes sense. A hundred years ago, it was clear that the number of animals you kept depended on the size of your farm. It wasn’t until the sixties that soilless animal production systems were established, relying on inputs like feed. Meanwhile, we now subsidize the export of our excess production. This sort of spiral threatens to sabotage the goals that our development policy aims to promote, such as ensuring local food supplies. A coherent policy would look different.
That sounds discouraging – are there any promising developments?
Theresa Tribaldos: One good example is the “100% Valposchiavo” campaign in Graubünden. Tourism and agriculture work closely together in Puschlav to guarantee high quality food and local processing. There are lots of local examples like this.
In cities, projects like urban gardening and solidarity farming are sprouting up – should these give us hope?
Theresa Tribaldos: Absolutely. The availability of food tends to become scarcer, and the more we experiment with new forms of production, the more diverse and stable our food system will become. Plus, these projects in urban areas can also help people better understand where their food comes from.
Puschlav is small and compact, and so is a community garden in our backyard. How can we scale up these kinds of ideas?
Sabin Bieri: Agricultural policy is a crucial lever. Regulation of tobacco is a possible model. But policies have to become more coherent. It’s not just about bans and information campaigns, but also about eliminating misguided incentives. This would include, for example, getting rid of subsidies for unhealthy foods like sugar. States would benefit twice over, since better nutrition also lowers health costs.
And what needs to be done in the global South?
Theresa Tribaldos: An initial step would be more transparency in value chains, so that we better grasp the impacts of what we trade. But we should also steer our trade so that it makes the food systems of our trading partners more sustainable and resilient.
Sabin Bieri: It’s important to develop labour-intensive industries rather than capital-intensive industries. Export agriculture, as it currently functions, only creates a handful of jobs that are often expendable. In addition, it’s important to maintain as much processing and value creation as possible in the global South.
With the free trade agreement with Indonesia, Switzerland took a first step towards fairer trade relations.
Theresa Tribaldos: The agreement has good aspects. But we can’t just demand strict standards. We also have to support capacity building in the countries of origin, for example by providing financial assistance for more sustainable processes.
Are there other levers to advance resilient food systems?
Sabin Bieri: It’s revealing to take a look at the sums of money spent on food systems. As consumers here in Switzerland, we spend 30 billion Swiss francs on food every year. Our pension accounts contain many times that amount – approximately one trillion Swiss francs. A substantial portion of this pension money is invested in industrialized food production – such as the soy monocultures mentioned before. Seen this way, we should hold the financial industry accountable, too.
These are big challenges. Does the current situation of multiple crises present an opportunity, or are we simply overwhelmed?
Sabin Bieri: The longer the situation lasts, the less time we have to respond. However, our food system is an ideal way to usher in change. Not least of all because everyone deals with food every day. We have to eat, after all, and it’s also a very enjoyable activity. Plus, food is easier to talk about than a rather abstract 1.5-degree climate target.
Theresa Tribaldos: I see opportunities in talking more about what represents a luxury and what we can do without. We should clearly avoid soy from Brazilian monocultures that we use to produce cheap meat. At the global level, we should also do more to address power concentration: When companies accumulate too much power, it can pose a threat to our democratic institutions. This is true for tech companies and for the food industry. Instead, we need to strive for more diversity and democracy. These are key contributors to resilience and justice in our food systems.
*The interview was published in December in the University of Bern's magazine UniFOKUS