Farming makes a valuable and critical contribution to society. It creates a food surplus that allows civilization to develop – farmers produce more food than they need so that the rest of the population can work on things beyond food production.
At the same time farming has an environmental impact. It involves bending nature to humanity’s advantage. Felling a forest, planting crops and applying fertilizer alter nature and come with an environmental cost.
Europe’s original forests probably covered around 80% to 90% of its surface. In Switzerland forests now cover only 30% to 40% of the land.
Swiss farming’s environmental impact
A recent report by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), shows how farm-generated nitrous oxides, phosphates, greenhouse gases, ammonia, biocides and particulate matter negatively impact on climate, soil, air, water and biodiversity.
Agriculture’s negative impact on Swiss biodiversity is of particular concern. Over one third of all surveyed species are under threat. Excess ammonia, which mainly originates from agriculture, spreads through the air and results in the over-fertilisation of sensitive ecosystems. Switzerland compares poorly to most of the countries in the report’s comparison on biodiversity.
Farmers while essential to society can rarely be considered better environmental custodians than nature left to its own devices.
Sustainable farming helps
Farmers can however limit their environmental impact with sustainable farming practices. There are Swiss farm subsidies that promote this. Since 2008 the federal authorities have supported low-emission technologies, such as the use of trailing hoses to spread manure to reduce ammonia emissions.
In addition, 13% of agricultural land is farmed and managed as extensive and low-intensity meadows and pastures, bedding meadows, fallow strips sown with wild flowers, hedges, and other biodiversity priority areas. The federal authorities promote these activities with direct subsidy payments.
Environmentally harmful subsidies still exist
Subsidies still exist for environmentally damaging inputs such as farmers’ exemption from mineral oil tax. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recommends that the Swiss government remove this subsidy and consider introducing taxes on environmentally damaging inputs such as fertilisers as well as taxing harmful outputs like methane from livestock.
Bigger could be better
Larger farms could improve the environment by allowing for less intensive more sustainable farming. A farmer with more land would find it easier to set aside land for biodiversity priority areas.
Bigger farms would also mean fixed-emission farm activities, such as transportation of goods and livestock, could be spread over more production so reducing the environmental cost per unit of output. For example moving 50 cattle in a single truck and trailer from one farm has less impact than 5 trucks carrying 10 cattle from 5 separate farms.
In addition, larger farms would increase individual farm incomes so reducing the need for economic subsidies, lightening the load on Swiss taxpayers.
The big question
Is there some combination of larger Swiss farms, sustainable productivity improvements and better environmental policy that could deliver a better environment, lower farm produce prices while requiring lower subsidies?
The OECD thinks so. It would however require changing a long standing farming tradition – some families would need to stop farming to allow the emergence of larger farms. To promote this the OECD recommends changing current inheritance rules that favour intergenerational farming.
Throwing off the yoke: Swiss farm numbers decline (Le News – September 2014)
Economic Policy Reforms 2015: Going for Growth (The OECD – February 2015)
Why Swiss farm produce is so expensive (Le News – February 2015)