In Switzerland, a popular vote, or referendum, can be launched when 100,000 signatures are collected within 18 months.
A crowd-funded initiative entitled: Save Switzerland from synthetic pesticides, now has more than 140,000 signatures and will be officially lodged with the government on 25 May.
The initiative hopes to ban the use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture and the maintenance of fields. It also aims to ban the import of food produced using synthetic pesticides. If accepted, Swiss farmers and food importers will have 10 years to adapt to a world without these chemicals.
The organisers, who include a winegrower and a university professor of soil biology, argue that Switzerland can produce enough food without these chemicals.
In addition, they think the benefits will outweigh the costs. The additional labour and more expensive equipment needed will be offset by environmental improvements and reduced healthcare costs.
A healthcare example is the possible link between glyphosate use and gluten intolerance1, a health issue affecting many. In the US a strong temporal correlation can be seen between numbers with the condition and glyphosate use. One hypothesis is that the antimicrobial effect of glyphosate upsets gut bacteria, leads to partially digested wheat, which then triggers an autoimmune response known as Celiac disease.
Pesticide producers typically argue that the benefits of chemical pesticides outweigh the costs, and the world could not be affordably fed without their yield-boosting chemicals.
But, if there was ever a food shortage many levers could be pulled to avoid starvation. We could divert food used for biofuels to dinner tables or eat more of the food currently fed to animals – grain-fed animals are one of the largest inefficiencies in the food system. On average, 10 grams of vegetable protein are needed to generate 1 gram of animal protein2.
In addition, chemical pesticide companies like to position themselves as transparent science-based outfits, implying their opponents are hysterical and irrational. However, there is plenty of science, born from different motives, on both sides.
Science is rarely definitive. New findings lead to new questions. But whose science should we trust? And when should the precautionary principle be applied?
Swiss voters will soon get to decide on these questions.
Initiative website (in English)
1Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance (in English)
2Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices (in English)