“Right now, Switzerland has a chance to formulate a food policy”

Around the world, some 500 million small farmers grow food – often in an agroecological manner. At the same time, however, only about 80 plant varieties currently make a substantial contribution to the world’s food supply, and these are usually grown in monocultures. Such industrial agriculture requires use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides. But what would happen if it were discontinued? CDE researcher Johanna Jacobi discusses viable alternatives and the necessary transformation to a sustainable food system.

“It’s not enough to act as if all that’s needed are a few adjustments here and there – and only in agriculture itself. What’s needed is a comprehensive food policy": Johanna Jacobi. Photo: CDE

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Johanna Jacobi, in your research on global food systems, you’ve investigated – among other things – the massive growth of pesticide use in Bolivia and Kenya. What are your most important findings?

We found very high use of pesticides especially on large export-oriented farms. In Bolivia, more than 60 different pesticides are sprayed on huge soybean fields that produce feed for Europe and China. By contrast, indigenous populations, who mainly cultivate maize for their livelihoods, use little or no pesticides – but they are being displaced by the expanding soybean production. In Kenya, vegetable farms that export to Europe use seven times more pesticides than those producing food for local consumption. And most of them contain so-called highly hazardous substances, many of which are banned in Switzerland. Despite this, all of the exporting farms investigated were certified with the GLOBALG.A.P. label for “good agricultural practices”.

What explains the enormous use of pesticides in developing countries?

Our study and several others show the same thing: small farmers in South America and Africa increasingly apply pesticides because they are being advised to do so. In Kenya, we’ve seen how small farmers are contracted by vegetable exporters and exclusively produce beans for Europe using large amounts of pesticides. If the produce shows any sign of imperfection, the farmers receive nothing.


“Average pesticide use in Switzerland is much higher than the European average”


Is Swiss agricultural production more environmentally friendly?

According to 2018 data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, average pesticide use in Switzerland – at 4.9 kilos per hectare per year – is much higher than the global overage of 2.6 kilos and the European average of 1.7 kilos. In Europe, pesticide use is only higher in Italy, Ireland, and especially the Benelux countries.

What are the direct health consequences for small farmers?

Small farmers worldwide face major risks. According to studies, the availability of such substances correlates with intentional and unintentional poisonings. The World Health Organization estimates that as many 168,000 people take their own lives with pesticides each year. According to a study from 2020, up to 385 million people suffer some form of pesticide poisoning every year. Paraquat, marketed by Syngenta and others, is especially problematic in this regard. Even very small amounts of it can be lethal.

At the same time, it’s also a fact that half of all plant-based calories come from rice, corn, and wheat, while three quarters of the global meat supply comes from pork, poultry, beef, and buffalo. Despite all the associated problems, how do you propose to replace these huge quantities?


“Small farmers produce over half of all food – on significantly less land”


Globally, the problem isn’t really the amount of food produced but rather its distribution. Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics, already showed this in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the productivist narrative is still regularly deployed to justify large-scale industrial agriculture. And it’s done even despite the fact that small farmers produce over half of all food. They do so occupying only 25 to 30 per cent of all agricultural land globally and using a fraction of the resources in comparison with industrial agriculture. So they’re pretty efficient.

How do they do it?

Their cultivation is often based on agroecological principles, and these in turn are rooted in biodiversity. As it is, we urgently need more diversity in our food. Today, vast amounts of energy and land are used to produce about five times more meat than makes sense from a nutritional point of view. Meanwhile, we produce far too few fruits, vegetables, pulses, and other essential components of a healthy diet.


“Agroecology isn’t a complement, but rather an alternative to our current food system”


What exactly is meant by agroecology?

Agroecology is a transformative science, practice, and social movement all at once. As a science, it means combining new insights with traditional knowledge. In practice, it means applying ecological principles in sustainable and equitable food systems. One of its main principles is that of (bio)diversity – at the level of the farm itself, across different landscapes, but also in terms of markets, cultures, and nutrition. Diversity builds resilience, not only to ecological stress factors, but also to economic stress factors. During the coronavirus crisis, it was plain to see how quickly everything could be disrupted.

And what does agroecology mean as a social movement?

It develops new, solidarity-oriented concepts and markets with the goal of making healthy, fair, and for the most part locally produced food from intact ecosystems available to everyone. Based on this understanding, agroecology isn’t a complement, but rather a self-determined and sustainable alternative to our current food system. It’s not enough to act as if all that’s needed are a few adjustments here and there – and only in agriculture itself. What’s needed is a far-reaching transformation based on a comprehensive food policy.


“There are alternatives. But it’s a question of political economy”


Agroecological systems are most prevalent in places where there are still lots of small farmers. In countries like Switzerland, however, we depend on food and feed imports from abroad. And these imports are only possible if other countries produce significantly more food than is needed for their own domestic consumption.

Trade is not necessarily a bad thing – indeed, it’s needed. For example, right now we have a project in the National Research Programme “Sustainable Economy” in which we’re trying to identify concrete mechanisms for sustainable, fair imports that promote rather than destroy biodiversity. There are absolutely ecological and fair ways of producing soya – which, by the way, grows just as well in Europe as it does in South America. Additionally, there are other fodder crops that can serve as alternatives. But our markets aren’t oriented towards them, and instead focus on soya from South America. So it’s a question of political economy.

In that case, agroecology requires a fundamental transformation of global agriculture and food systems. How can we accomplish such a thing?

The transition to agroecology and a sustainable food system can be described according to five levels, ranging from agricultural production all the way to a fundamental transformation of our food system as a whole (see Box).

Transition to agroecology and a sustainable food system

On Level 1, efficiency is improved by reducing overall use of external inputs like fertilizer, fuel, and pesticides in all production systems – whether conventional or organic. On Level 2, agrochemicals are replaced with more sustainable options, such as organic fertilizer or biopesticides. Level 3 involves more profound change at the farm level, as entire production systems are redesigned based on ecological principles – for example by means of crop rotation, composting, agroforestry, and mixed cropping. On Level 4, the connections between producers and consumers are re-established. This involves creating markets for agroecological products and building solidarity between farms and other value chain actors. Finally, Level 5 encompasses a comprehensive transformation of policies, rules, institutions, and culture towards social justice and democracy in the food system.

Agroecological transitions (full size) (PNG, 444KB)


“Supermarket prices don’t reflect the real costs”


Looking at the current debate, we appear to be light years away from this.

Elimination of synthetic pesticides, as is currently being discussed in Switzerland, would be situated on Levels 1–2. But a systemic transformation – which includes the other three levels – is equally important, as you can’t just get rid of the inputs used in the industrial food system, but rather have to consider further necessary changes at the same time. Right now, given the recent suspension of national agricultural policy reform, Switzerland has the chance to formulate a food policy that brings together agriculture, health, protection of landscapes and nature, climate, as well as other areas of the economy and labour policy.

And what about the financial picture: would food still be affordable?

Supermarket prices don’t reflect the real costs, if we think about all the related subsidies as well as environmental and health expenditures that would have to be included. Ecologically and socially compatible agriculture and food would be cheaper for everyone. For it to be possible, several things have to change economically – ranging from access to land to the profit margins of a few powerful players in the food system. For example, “value” shouldn’t be viewed just in monetary terms but should rather be seen as encompassing things like biodiversity, culture, ecosystem functions, health, or landscape perceptions, as well. This is what I refer to as decommodification of the food system – considering and integrating other values besides the monetary ones.


“We won’t find solutions using the same mindset that created the problems to begin with”


And these would also be given a price?

That’s another discussion. Price and value aren’t the same thing and shouldn’t be confused. We won’t find solutions using the same mindset that created the problems to begin with.

Examples of research projects on the topic

CDE conducts research in numerous projects on agriculture and food systems worldwide. Among them is the project “Towards food sustainability”, which is part of the r4d programme of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The project’s goal is to provide evidence-based knowledge for the formulation and promotion of innovative strategies and policy options to improve food system sustainability at the individual level and that of the economy as a whole. Another project, entitled “Sustainable trade relations for diversified food systems”, shows how states can distinguish between more or less sustainably produced food in their trade relations without violating key principles of trade law. This will make it possible to orient future trade relations towards promotion of more diverse food systems. The project is part of the National Research Programme “Sustainable Economy” (NRP 73).