“We are outsourcing many of the problems of our food system”

Switzerland is currently debating how its agricultural sector should operate. Finland is taking a different approach and is striving to make its entire food system – including international impacts – climate-friendly. Could this approach work in Switzerland? What would it take? CDE researcher Theresa Tribaldos discusses the importance of looking beyond our own borders as well as addressing questions of justice.

“It’s important not to just talk exclusively about agricultural production and leave everything else aside”: Theresa Tribaldos. Photo: CDE

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Theresa Tribaldos, you’re working with Finnish and Brazilian researchers to investigate how we can achieve equitable food systems. From this perspective, what do you find notable in the current debate over Swiss agricultural policy and the two upcoming popular initiatives?

First and foremost, what strikes me in the current debate is how agriculture is being discussed in isolation, disconnected from issues of processing, trade, distribution, and consumption. Yet all of these are closely related or interdependent. In my view, we don’t have a choice about reducing use of synthetic pesticides – we must. But it’s a fantasy to think that things will be solved if farmers grow food without synthetic pesticides while everything else continues as before.


“The initiatives put a very important issue on the table”


So the initiatives are approaching things from the wrong angle?

Not at all in terms of their goal. They are putting a very important issue on the table, which is now being widely discussed by the public. But it’s important not to just talk exclusively about agricultural production and leave everything else aside. The example of meat is illustrative: we can’t continue eating the same amount of meat and think we can do it using only fodder produced locally. The result would be that we import more meat and have even less influence over how it’s produced.

You’re referring to entire food systems. What has to be considered?

The most important goal of any food system is to provide the population with sufficient healthy food. This includes what is produced and how, the way in which goods are processed, marketed, and traded, as well as power relations along the value chains. It also encompasses the information available to producers and consumers, the framework conditions set by policymakers, and – not least of all – the conditions provided by the natural environment.


“An enormous concentration of power has occurred in the agro-food sector”


Why power relations?

It’s an unfortunate fact that power is distributed very unevenly in our food systems. In Brazil, for example, rural populations are under increasing pressure from large landowners and international companies that grow monocultures on huge tracts of land in order to produce commodities, like soya, cheaply. As a consequence, exporting and importing countries tacitly accept related harms like land grabbing, deforestation, heavy pesticide use, human rights violations, and more. In this way, countries like Switzerland largely outsource the associated problems.

This means that agribusinesses should also be held accountable. How can we achieve that?

Sooner or later, policymakers in the respective countries – and internationally – will have to decide how to proceed on this issue. Indeed, in recent decades, an enormous concentration of power has occurred along the entire value chain – including in Switzerland. Multinationals increasingly determine what is produced, in what way, and – consequently – what we consume.


“The problems associated with agribusiness aren’t limited to the consumption of animal products”


In industrialized countries, we consume over 85 kilos of meat per person per year. Should we just eat less meat, or none at all?

I don’t think that we need to quit eating meat entirely, especially since meat also contains valuable nutrients that are difficult to replace with a completely plant-based diet. But yes, we should indeed eat significantly less meat, even if here in Switzerland we’re not quite as high as 85 kilos per capita. If the entire population were to reduce its meat consumption to a level that makes sense from a health perspective, then we could meet the demand with animal- and environmentally friendly production. However, the problems associated with agribusiness aren’t limited to the consumption of animal products.

But rather?

If we don’t change the system that relies on huge monocultures, little is gained even with a completely plant-based diet. Of course, more people could be fed that way. But unsustainable land use and other consequences would remain if we were to eat more crops like legumes that overwhelmingly come from intensive production systems.


“We need to transform our food systems significantly even just to contain global warming”


The research project that you’re working on takes a different approach. What is it?

We know that our food systems are not ecologically sound, healthy, or equitable. Take global warming: 30 to 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to food systems. Due to this alone, we need to transform our food systems significantly. But there are always winners and losers in such processes of change. Accordingly, our main research question centres on how we can achieve the necessary transformation without further burdening those who are most vulnerable. Ultimately, our studies revolve around issues of justice in food systems.

What does that mean concretely?

We look at the entire value chain, from agricultural production to international trade and consumption. At the same time, we work with various case studies; one of them is in Brazil. Here, we’re investigating the impacts of soya production on local farmers and the levers that could be used to tackle related challenges.


“We need to ask ourselves how we can move away from soya feed”


So, you’re looking for ways of making soya production sustainable?

Of course, it’s possible to tweak individual parameters – such as decreasing pesticide use or reducing deforestation for growing areas. However, our findings show that it isn’t possible to make a model sustainable that is aimed at intensive cultivation of enormous land areas for the sake of massive, cheap exports. What strikes me as more important is to design an exit strategy. In other words, to ask ourselves: how can we move away from this type of soya?

Does the Finnish government, who supports the research project, truly have an interest in collaborating with researchers to find corresponding solutions?

The Finns are strongly motivated to do something about global warming. A key component of this is transforming the food system. Finland also wants to take equity issues into account.


“Finland isn’t just looking at its own production, but is increasingly also considering global value chains”


How relevant are scientific results for Finnish policy?

Our Finnish partners are in very intensive exchange with various state authorities. In these policy dialogues, we regularly discuss what needs to be considered from an equity perspective when changing the policy framework that governs the food system.

For example?

One example involves the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. We’re discussing with the relevant government agencies what it would mean to cut such emissions by 50 percent – but also how various demands for equitability could be integrated in the corresponding legal framework. The initial emphasis is on Finnish concerns, but global value chains are also being discussed with growing intensity.


“Sectoral thinking often dominates in Switzerland”


Could the approach adopted by Finland together with scientists be transferred to Switzerland?

On the one hand, that would require political will. Then it would certainly be possible. However, sectoral thinking often dominates in Switzerland. In the case of the food system, it would be particularly critical for the various federal agencies – including the federal offices for agriculture, for the environment, and of public health, as well as the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – to talk with each other and look for solutions jointly. On the other hand, we need more courage to fund research that doesn’t follow conventional patterns, but rather leaves room for open processes.

What measures are appropriate to make our food system more just?

We won’t reach our goal via a single path, so a variety of approaches are needed. One of them is trade. We have to ask ourselves which goods we want to import in the first place, and how they should be produced. Another lever is to provide support to local organizations who are resisting pressure from agribusiness in producer countries like Brazil. Here, too, there are ways of actively engaging by means of trade relations and agreements. And we definitely have to think about what kind of animal keeping and production we wish to support domestically, so that we don’t have to rely on imports of feed like soya. This, in turn, concerns consumers: their purchasing decisions strongly influence what is produced and how. Fair prices and sustainable production methods are essential ingredients.

Swiss national vote on agricultural initiatives

In anticipation of the national vote on 13 June 2021 concerning the popular initiatives “For clean drinking water” and “For a Switzerland without synthetic pesticides”, CDE is publishing a series of informative interviews with experts. The focus is on issues that currently receive little attention in the public debate.

Example of a research project on the topic

CDE conducts research in numerous projects on agriculture and food systems worldwide. Among them is the project “JUST-FOOD: Tackling inequalities on the way to sustainable food systems”. The project is supported by the Strategic Research Council (SRC) at the Academy of Finland and is being implemented together with numerous research partners in Finland and Brazil.