Preserving freedom of choice.
The initiative for a “Switzerland without synthetic pesticides” and the so-called “drinking water” initiative raise fundamental issues about freedom of choice. I was born in the U.K., and have spent my 43-year career in food and agriculture. Switzerland has been my home for 21 of those years, and I have come to love this country. Amongst the many aspects of life that I appreciate here, are the rights of citizens and residents that are embodied in the Swiss constitution. Freedom of speech, freedom of science, freedom of art, and, of course, freedom of citizens to sign petitions and create an initiative. Consequently, an initiative that would eliminate the freedoms of many surely requires particular consideration. Farmers would not be free to farm as they see fit. Consumers would not be able to choose between more expensive organic (bio) food which represents 11% of consumption in Switzerland and affordable, high-quality conventionally produced food which accounts for 89% of our national diet. The pesticide ban would also apply to imported food, affecting the freedom of coffee and chocolate producers to import the raw material they need, with consequences for the freedom of some workers to continue their profession.
Pesticides are a key enabler for the production of the excellent food we enjoy today. A recent University of St Gallen publication estimates that switching entirely to organic production in Switzerland would reduce crop yields by 30%. At a global level, crop yields are between two and four times higher than they were 60 years ago. Pesticides, both chemical and biological, along with improved plant varieties, fertilizers, and mechanization have enabled these yield increases. Since the 1970s, the cost of food in real terms in developed countries has halved to around 9% of disposable household income. In the developing world, however, food is much more expensive in real terms, and 1.3 billion people suffer from food insecurity (FAO estimate). With a global population heading for 10 billion by 2050 and climate change making farming ever more challenging, it is essential to increase food productivity using all types of technology available.
Switzerland is only 60% self-sufficient in food production. Switching to organic production would reduce this to approaching 40%; consequently, there would be more reliance on imports. The price of food would increase. Is this wise? Does Switzerland want to turn away from productive agriculture in the context of a world that needs more food?
Turning to the alleged health and environmental issues that are central to the anti-pesticide campaign. Firstly, today almost everybody in Switzerland can easily afford a healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and protein. This should not be taken for granted; pesticides make a significant contribution to the availability of this high-quality diet. The fact that infinitesimal chemical residues can sometimes be detected in food is of absolutely no consequence to human health. Pesticides are subjected to the most rigorous regulatory processes, and Switzerland is particularly vigilant in monitoring pesticide residues in food. It may surprise many to know that processed meat and alcoholic drinks are classified by the WHO in Group 1, carcinogenic to humans, whereas there are no pesticides registered in Switzerland with this classification. Of course, processed meat and alcoholic drinks can be safely consumed in moderation, I make this point only to illustrate that the authorities are extremely rigorous in regulating pesticides.
Concerning the environment, the act of growing crops in any system has an impact on the environment. The objective needs to be to minimize this impact. Banning synthetic pesticides would have the opposite effect. Lower yields would mean more land would be needed to retain current levels of production. The central point about the environment is that all farmers are increasingly focused on sustainability. Inputs, whether fertilizers, synthetic or biological pesticides, are expensive and used only when necessary. It is notable that conventional farmers also use many of the techniques and products that organic farmers use, but not to the exclusion of modern, low-dose synthetic pesticides that maximize productivity. Agriculture overall has seen a significant drop in pesticide volumes as technologies improve.
It is ironic that the ban on synthetic pesticides would also impact organic producers, who rely particularly on those based on sulfur and copper for disease control. On the other hand, the initiative intends that non-synthetic pesticide would continue to be used. For example, a compound called azadirachtin, an extract from the Neem tree, native to India, would be permitted. The European Food Safety Authority 2018 review of azadirachtin lists numerous data gaps, particularly on environmental safety. The notion that non-synthetic pesticides are safer than synthetic products is based more on ideology than science.
The related vote on June 13th is the so-called “drinking water” initiative, which would effectively eliminate all pesticide use as well as antibiotics. The question of water purity is critical for everybody. The fact is that Swiss drinking water meets the highest standards of hygiene and safety. Like every natural product, tap water contains many trace substances but these are of no consequence to human health. It is totally unjustified to implement the draconian measures for pesticides embodied in this initiative, and the consequences for farmer livelihoods and consumer choice would be just as serious as for the pesticide initiative.
The evidence overwhelmingly shows that pesticides including synthetic, non-synthetic, and biological, are a cornerstone of a farming system that provides plentiful, high quality, healthy and affordable food. The demanding regulatory systems in Switzerland and other countries are highly effective in ensuring the wellbeing of the general public. Farmers already focus on minimizing the environmental impact of agriculture, and new methods and tools can ensure a more productive and sustainable system. If you prefer organic food and can afford it, this option is available. The majority of people consume the equally good but more affordable food that comes from conventional agriculture. There is no rational argument for depriving us of all of this choice.
Dr. John Atkin John is Chairman of Spearhead International, one of Europe’s largest farming companies. He is also a non-executive director of Driscoll’s, the global fresh berry company, and of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. John was Chief Operating Officer for Syngenta until retirement in 2014.