It has to stink a bit – really?

As days get shorter and coats thicker, many people seek comfort in cheese fondue. Ready-made fondue sales skyrocket in the winter months. Behind this lucrative business, however, are millions of federal francs – and, unfortunately, often also Brazilian rainforest.

Simon Braissant, CLEVER-Autor

Fondue is not only in vogue here in Switzerland – international sales are also rising. Of the 72,000 tonnes of cheese products exported in 2018, 4,200 tonnes (6%) were transported as ready-made fondue. 2018 was also otherwise a lucrative year for Swiss cheese: national production volume increased by over two tonnes (to 191,000), and the export volume grew by 1.4%. Meanwhile, the number of dairy cows kept in Switzerland declined steadily over the same period, and the number of dairy farmers continues to shrink. In 2017, cows produced milk on 20,300 Swiss farms; one year later, the figure dropped to 19,700 farms. The logical consequence of this is an increasing intensification of milk production.

500% more milk production made possible by importing soya

Maximising the yield per animal is a goal for many farmers. Due to the breeding of ever more efficient dairy cows and the constant optimisation of their feed mix, a cow can deliver up to 40 litres of milk per day. Eight litres would be enough to feed a calf: the amount that a cow is naturally adapted for. 

A modern cow must be milked twice a day to avoid pain because its udders are so full. This is done by fully automated milking robots. In order to deliver such high yields, these high-performance cows are fed up to three kilograms of concentrated feed per day. This concentrated feed, strikingly, contains maize, other grains and soya from South America. According to the Soy Network Switzerland, most of the 268,000 tonnes of soya feed imported into Switzerland in 2018 originated from Brazil. Thus, Swiss dairy farming thus indirectly contributes to clearing the rainforest. Although Switzerland has supported importing "responsible" soya since 2011, imported soya still is produced by means of pesticide-intensive cultivation on arable land that could otherwise be used to provide food for human consumption. Compliance with the defined “responsible” standards is also difficult to monitor: hence, many environmental protection organisations advocate against feeding ruminants imported concentrated feed.

  • Index 2017 of cow milk production: Cow milk (dark blue), dairy cows (turquoise) and farms with dairy (light blue)
  • Thousands of farms: Conventional farms (blue)
    and organic farms (yellow)
  • Farms of 50 hectares or greater: total farms (grey), conventional farms (blue) and organic farms (yellow)

Heidi idyll for greater milk sales

For many years, Swiss milk has been advertised through the brand swissmilk by the powerful milk lobby SMP (Organisation Schweizer Milchproduzenten, or the Organization of Swiss Milk Producers). This has propagated many misguided ideas about local milk production. Today, a large proportion of the Swiss population believes that the almost four million tonnes of milk produced in Switzerland each year come from happy cows on small farm pastures. Moreover, the Confederation supports SMP marketing with millions of Swiss francs annually. In 2017, SMP had a marketing budget of almost 50 million francs at its disposal. For comparison: Migros, a leading Swiss supermarket chain, has an annual marketing budget of around 260 million francs for all of its products and operations.


Reconsideration needed in politics

An agricultural logic that promotes milk production with direct payments while supporting milk marketing with federal funds in order to artificially increase demand fails several times over. Not only do the cows suffer from the effects of this faulty logic, but also our environment and the climate. Imported concentrated feed causes high CO2 emissions and loss of biodiversity. One fondue advertisement reads "Ä chli stinke muess äs" (“It has to stink a bit”). ... But we think this cheese stinks like hell.

Through “Vision Landwirtschaft” and “Agrarallianz”, Biovision together with other organizations are calling for a modern agricultural policy that takes into account the entire value chain from "farm-to-table", a chain that includes the environment and animal welfare. This would also include more climate-friendly milk production and the reduction of imported feed. With the project "Transformation Food System Switzerland", Biovision advocates a solution- and science-oriented political framework at the national level that will make a transformation towards a sustainable food system in the sense of Agenda 2030 possible.