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Transalpine traffic comes under fire

The Alpine Initiative finds it absurd that Swiss cream is processed in Belgium and Italy, but sold back in Switzerland

International organisations have joined forces to halt the unnecessary transportation of goods in Europe and defend the alpine ecosystem.

The joint action, under the patronage of the European Transport Initiative (ETI), has organised a series of protests in Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland.

In Switzerland the Alpine Initiative, a group fighting against Alpine transit traffic, is holding its own "resistance party" in the alpine town of Göschenen.

Absurd examples

Campaigners cite a series of "absurd" examples where produce is sent thousands of kilometres across Europe before returning to its country of origin.

Some of them are legendary such as the story of potatoes that are picked in Poland, washed in Greece, sliced in Germany and prepared in Italy before being sold back to the north Europeans as frozen chips.

To this tale can be added the seafood collected in Scandinavia, which is shelled in Morocco but ends up back on Nordic plates. Or the yoghurt that passes though 15 countries during the manufacturing process.

"We want to show that much of this transportation is unnecessary," Fabio Pedrina, president of the Alpine Initiative, told swissinfo.

To underline his point, Pedrina offers the example of whipped cream that is produced and sold in Switzerland but packaged in Belgium or Italy.

"This is yet another product which has done about 2,000 kilometres too many on European roads. Why can't we do the job here in Switzerland?" asked Pedrina.

Good sense and economic laws

But Ernst Mohr, professor of political economics at the University of St Gallen, says that while many journeys might appear paradoxical, there is usually a sound reason behind them.

"Unnecessary transportation? It doesn't exist. In economics you can only talk about advantageous or disadvantageous transportations," said Mohr.

"Each stage of production has been rationally thought about by the company which decides on the basis of economic criteria.

"It's a question of costs. Let's face it, we live in a competitive world. And it's only right that it is like that."

The Alpine Initiative says the crux of the problem is road traffic, especially heavy goods traffic, which generates pollution, accidents and damages the environment as well as health.

They argue that these elements are not generally taken into account by companies.

It is estimated that in Switzerland alone these hidden costs total up to between SFr1 billion and SFr3 billion per year. And for the whole of Europe, the figure rises to SFr400 billion.

Consumer education

Campaigners believe consumers can also play an important role because they generally determine the fate of a product. They say increased consumer education could heighten public awareness.

"Even for the most careful consumer, it is often difficult to uncover the whole story behind a product," said Monique Pichonnaz, director of the Federal Office of Consumer Affairs.

"We need a type of consumer education. Today very often the only element that influences a choice of product is its price."

Some people have even called for a pricing system that would give an indication of a product's ecological value, thus reflecting all the business, social and environmental costs of its manufacture.

"If prices do not tell the whole truth, consumers will not be encouraged to behave in a sensible and efficient way," said Mohr.

swissinfo, Marzio Pescia, translated by Isobel Johnson

Key facts

3.2% more goods travelled through the Alps in 2001 than 2000
Two-thirds of goods traffic travels by road in Switzerland
The amount of goods transported by rail has remained stable in Switzerland

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