“The Swiss diet has a large global footprint. We have to change that!”

Agriculture and food are responsible for 40 percent of climate change. The UN Food Summit in September brought international attention to the issues of food security and food sovereignty. What is happening in Switzerland to achieve fairer and more sustainable food? And how do we get closer to a sustainable food system?

An interview with Daniel Langmeier, Biovision policy advisor and co-founder of the action network “Agroecology Works!” and Carole Küng, co-director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Switzerland.

  • Possible fields of action for a sustainable food system in Switzerland
    Carole Küng and Daniel Langmeier
  • [Translate to English:] Possible fields of action for a sustainable food system in Switzerland
    Switzerland needs to address all areas of the food system together – health, trade, environment and classical agricultural policy – says Daniel Langmeier (Image: zvg Climatestrike)

Interview: Margarete Sotier, Biovision

The UN Food Summit directed international attention to the urgency for change in the global food system. Did it have any effect in Switzerland?

Daniel Langmeier (DL): In Switzerland, the summit was mainly a platform for the sectors working on this topic – politics, academia and non-governmental organizations. I doubt that the general population heard much about it. Nevertheless, you can sense that the topic is taking a different form than in the past – think about the past and upcoming referendums, such as the two pesticide initiatives or the initiative against factory farming livestock.

Carole Küng (CK): I also think that the Food Summit is far too invisible to the Swiss population. There are societal debates about the topic, but they were not triggered by the summit. That is why SDSN has worked so hard to ensure that the national dialogues around it continue rather than simply die out (see box). We want the dialogues to have an impact because, amidst all the criticism, the summit also provoked international reconsideration of important points.

Carole, you mentioned that the Food Summit has attracted a lot of criticism. What mistakes should we avoid in Switzerland?

CK: There was a lot of criticism internationally and in Switzerland because the Food Summit did not take a human-rights-centred approach.We have to take this into account. This would entail that the diverse actors who can ultimately bring change also need to better understand how others communicate and their objectives. To do so, all interest groups need to be involved in focusing on conflicting goals. These are highlighted in particular by the expert panel on the future of food in Switzerland established by SDSN.

DL: I think that the aforementioned changes to our food system need to be supported more broadly, meaning that the population should be much more involved. This involvement should go beyond the popular referendums where people can only vote “yes” or “no”. At the Food Summit, the dialogues Carole mentioned did not reach the general population. In a planned project together with SDSN and Landwirtschaft mit Zukunft (agriculture for the future), we would like to raise awareness among the population through a citizens' council for food policy.

Where do you see the biggest leverage for change towards a sustainable food system in Switzerland?

DL: The fact that we now talk about the food system and no longer just about agriculture alone is an important first step. Politicians must now follow this lead and bring together the relevant policy areas for the food system: health, trade, environment and, of course, classical agricultural policy. Otherwise we will remain mired in confrontation, for example between farmers and consumers. We need solutions that help both sides achieve healthy and sustainable food produced under fair conditions. An influential group is the public sector, which, for example, should increasingly demand sustainable products for catering in cafeterias, hospitals, etc.

CK: Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires better utilizing synergies. To do this, politics and administration must get out of their “silo thinking” and create integrated solutions. Our current diet, for example, has very high health costs. Fortunately, eating sustainably also means eating healthier. A more plant-based diet is key. Political interests must start with that for reducing health and environmental costs, while not forgetting our diet’s global footprint. We urgently need to reduce food waste in the production chain, from field to fork, and promote more sustainable value chains and trade. This holds huge win-win potential.

Daniel, with Agroecology Works! and together with other organizations and initiatives, Biovision has created a network for pursuing a sustainable food system in Switzerland. Why? What do you want to achieve?

DL: As the name says, we want to show that agroecology works. Biovision has been demonstrating this for over 20 years, and we also want to show Swiss politicians and the public that agroecology will be central to transforming our food system. The network brings together people and organizations from research, practice and civil society who share this position.

At the “Agroecology Days” event series from 1 to 6 November, you provided information on the term. Why is this your starting point?

DL: Developing agricultural policy into a comprehensive food policy is a widely discussed topic these days. Agroecology must play a central role. In the “Agroecology Days” we wanted to underscore why. The events serve, first, to create a common understanding of agroecology; second, they show what role agroecology has to play in future food policy; and third, they are intended to inspire involvement from even more people and organizations. (Click here for the recording of the kick-off event, in German)

Together with the network, you launched a petition to entrench agroecology more strongly in Switzerland. Why?

DL: Since the planned agricultural policy was suspended at the beginning of 2021 for the several years, the federal council must revise it again and, as requested by parliament, consider how it can be further developed. With the petition, we want to promote agroecology’s leading role in this change, and we hope that many people will support it.

Carole, SDSN is also committed to a change towards a sustainable food system. What aspects do you address?

CK: We need to close the enormous gap between what is scientifically needed for more sustainable nutrition and what is being done so far. For the first time, SDSN has brought over 30 leading scientists together in an expert panel to identify systemic solutions to close this gap in Switzerland. The panel looks at the whole value chain: from production to healthy consumption within planetary boundaries. This provides the basis for a dialogue that we would like to have with policymakers and all the interest groups and actors along the value chain to create joint support for change.

SDSN will likely continue the nationwide dialogues that took place before the Food Summit. What specific goals are you pursuing?

CK: Switzerland lacks a mandate for the urgently needed transformation of its food system. Since we rely on exports for about half of our food, our food has a global footprint. We are working to ensure that Switzerland and all relevant actors assume their leadership roles and responsibilities for the future.

Which topics are in the foreground?

CK: Demonstrating the scientific urgency of and possible solutions for a change in nutrition and, in turn, creating solutions with politicians and decision-makers. SDSN Switzerland’s focus is on Switzerland taking advantage of the opportunities that a change in its food system would bring to achieving a variety of UN Sustainable Development Goals. Switzerland can make a significant contribution to the goals of “no hunger”, “good health” and many sub-goals such as a smaller ecological footprint. Resolving conflicting goals between, for example, “no hunger” and a more ecological diet – in the short term, a less productive one – must be prioritized. To resolve this, the process of change must be designed in a socially responsible way, both for producers and consumers.

You have the same goals as Agroecology Works! but pursue different approaches. Why?

CK: SDSN works on a non-partisan basis and develops broad-based solutions together with business, civil society and science. I see how important it is to educate people and create foundational understanding for the term agroecology, for example. But it is not enough to stand in front of a school class and shout: “You need to finally learn to read and write because it is important!” Every child must learn according to their own level and be accompanied through the entire learning process to succeed. Similarly, sustainable development also requires a social learning process: we can only achieve a transformation of the Swiss food system if everyone participates.

Editor’s note: The interview was conducted in writing.