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Calls grow louder for pesticide-free food and water

Tractor applying pesticide to a field of lettuce
Campaigners argue excess pesticide contaminates food and seeps into the soil, polluting the groundwater. Opponents say pesticide-free agriculture methods are not a realistic option. Christian Beutler/Keystone

Two separate proposals are demanding a radical reform of the country’s agriculture and food production sectors, phasing out the use of synthetic pesticides.

Both people’s initiatives have a similar goal but differ in their approach, targeting intensive agriculture and aiming for more sustainable production methods.

A striking characteristic is the strong personal concern of the members of both campaign committees about environmental pollution, biodiversity, safe food and clean drinking water.

The two people’s initiatives are among five issues on the national ballot sheet on June 13.

What’s at stake?

The anti-pesticides initiative demands an outright ban on the use of synthetic weedkillers, insecticides, and fungicides in Switzerland’s agriculture sector as well as for private or commercial use. It also wants to ban imports of such agents.

The campaigners foresee a ten-year transition period to adapt the food and agriculture sectors and to boost research into biodiversity.

The other proposal focuses on drinking water, but also targets pesticides and the use of antibiotics in agriculture. It wants to stop all government subsidies to farmers who are not committed to sustainable, eco-friendly production methods.

In response to the initiatives, parliament decided on a legal amendment aimed at halving the use of herbicides by the year 2027 and paving the way for further measures to guarantee the quality of drinking water.

The initiatives come amid growing concern among the public about the amounts of pesticide used in food production, and reports of high levels of groundwater pollution in Switzerland.

Who are the proponents of the initiatives?

The proposals were launched by separate civil society committees without ties to a specific political party. They handed in their initiatives in 2018 with 113,979 and 121,307 signatures respectively.

The anti-pesticide committeeExternal link, based in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, is made up of scientists, legal experts and farmers. They all stress their personal concern about the health and environmental risks of synthetic pesticides.

The group behind the ‘drinking water initiative’External link is made up of seven female members and a man. The committee is led by Franziska Herren, a former manager of a fitness studio who became politically active as a consumer with a strong environmental awareness, including the fight over nuclear power and other health issues.

Herren first got involved in local politics in her village in the German-speaking part of the country, before later turning her attention to agriculture.

The ‘initiative against synthetic pesticides’ is seen as being more radical than the ‘drinking water initiative’.

Water from a fountain, glass and hand
The government as well as a majority of parliament reject the ‘drinking water initiative’ saying enough is being done to protect the water quality. But several studies found residue of pesticide in groundwater, drinking water and small streams, according to campaigners. Manu Friederich/Keystone

What are the main arguments for the initiatives?

Both committees independently call for a reform of the country’s agriculture policy, to rid it of toxic chemical substances and move towards sustainable and animal-friendly production standards.

Intensive agriculture methods, supported by CHF3.5 billion ($3.7 billion) of taxpayer money each year, are a serious threat to public health as well as to biodiversity, they say.

Farmers are indirectly encouraged by government subsidies to use pesticides, antibiotics and imported feed to increase their production output, according to supporters.

Thousands of tonnes of excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilisers pollute the soil and groundwater every year, destroying the eco-system, forests, rivers, fields and gardens as well as increasing the risk of serious illnesses.

The campaigners of the drinking water initiative have also criticised the lack of efficient measures to reduce the use of pesticides, and argue that approving their proposal would make Switzerland an international pioneer.

What are the main arguments against the initiatives?

Opponents say the aims of the initiatives are unrealistic. They would lead to higher production costs and consumer prices, and result in more imports, they argue.

If pesticide-free standards were imposed, thousands of jobs in agriculture and the food production sector would be cut and Switzerland wouldn’t be able to maintain current production levels and hygiene rules, they say.

Some opponents also argue that the initiatives would hamper research into pesticides, while a proposed ban on importing any food which is not free of synthetic pesticides would violate international trade agreements.

The initiatives are not only too radical but are also unnecessary, according to opposing parties and interest groups.

They argue that the farming sector, parliament and the government have already taken measures to protect people and the environment from harmful pesticides. Incentives to use more natural production methods, including soil rotation, led to a drop in sales of pesticides over the past few years. Besides, Switzerland is renowned for the high quality of its drinking water, opponents add.

Why do the Swiss have a say on both proposals?

Under the Swiss system of direct democracy, citizens can trigger an amendment to the country’s constitution. It takes at least 100,000 valid signatures collected within 18 months to force a nationwide vote on a people’s initiativeExternal link.

To date, 220 such initiatives have been decided at the ballot since the right was introduced in 1891. Twenty-three of them were approved.

Who are the supporters and opponents?

For both initiatives, the political left and environmental groups are facing off against a broad alliance of parties from the centre and the right. The latter also have the support of the business community and the country’s main farmers’ association

Smaller farmers’ groups, including the leading organisation of organic agriculture and a left-wing trade union are divided. They both recommend rejection of the ‘drinking water initiative’ and approve or remain indecisive about the ‘pesticides initiative’. 

Similarly, some centrist and centre-right parties, including the Liberal Greens and the Radicals, are split down the middle over the ‘drinking water initiative.’ 



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Farming between environmental and economic demands?

The two initiatives are the latest in a series of proposals over the past few years to reform the country’s agriculture policy, including initiatives to boost ethical food production and local farming, a constitutional article aimed at achieving national self-sufficiency in food production as well as a ban on financial speculation on the trading on agricultural commodities.

A proposal to pay extra subsidies to farmers who don’t dehorn their livestock, the so-called cow horn initiative, also attracted international attention.

However, only the constitutional amendment on food security won approval from voters, in September 2017.

Several other proposals are still waiting to be decided at the ballot box, notably an initiative aimed at banning large-scale livestock production. Other people’s initiatives in the works focus on biodiversity or zoning issues but will also have an impact on the farming sector.

Parliament recently shelved plans by the government to reform the country’s agriculture policy by granting financial support for more sustainable farming methods, boosting biodiversity and promoting animal-friendly rearing practices.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR