Bernard Lehmann, Director, Federal Office for Agriculture, Switzerland
Food demand may well double by 2050 as world population continues to grow and changing food habits cause it to rise sharply. By contrast, agriculture is struggling with the consequences of climate change in many regions. And, to make things worse, global resources become increasingly scarce: every year, for example, much fertile soil is irrevocably lost. Furthermore the stocks of fossil plant nutrients cannot be expanded infinitely Food security must thus be ensured without increasing the amount of resources used. If we cannot achieve this, the world food system is likely to get deeper and deeper into a vicious circle that can only be broken with enormous effort.
Switzerland is not exempted from these developments. Much of the food we consume is produced abroad and reaches us through global markets and a large part of (scarce) production factors such as fertilizers are also imported. Even though Switzerland plays only a minor role in the global system, in both production and demand, I am convinced that the Swiss agri-food chain must make a contribution to global food security.
Relying on our strong purchasing power to ensure the availability of food is not enough. The 2008 global food crisis has shown that a unilateral focus on the world market offers a false sense of security. Moreover, ignoring the impact of our actions on consumers and producers outside our country is not acceptable. So Switzerland strives to tackle challenges in both production and consumption, so as to contribute to sustainable global food security. For production we focus on a sustainable intensification, increasing our food production without impairing the environment or raising resource requirements. When focusing on consumption I mainly see food waste as a major problem that must be addressed.
It is crucial that Swiss food production remains at a reasonable level, but it must be recognized that this goal often conflicts with others. For instance, soil - that very scarce resource - is the basis not only for food production, but for such other goods and services such as biodiversity and recreation. Trade-offs very often, if not always, result and need to be taken into account in the design of agro-ecosystems. And there are other trade-offs, such as temporal ones. Do we, for example, use a non-renewable resource today or save it for our descendants?
It is most important to use resources efficiently to avoid such conflicts and to foster sustainable intensification of production. Agricultural research plays a key role in this endeavour,: it needs to identify ways of improving resource use efficiency significantly, for instance with new varieties or improved management.
Practically implementing our knowledge is also a challenge. Where markets do not sufficiently ensure the application of effective measures because prices do not signal the scarcity of a resource, for example, it is legitimate for the government to intervene to ensure their implementation.
Reducing food waste is another major lever for achieving the sustainable provision of food. Initial studies have concluded that, in Switzerland, about a third of the food produced is not eaten, with approximately 40 percent of the losses incurred by consumers.
In 2010 the average Swiss household spent 7 percent of its income for food, reflecting its high purchasing power which results in high expectations with respect to quality and variety.
These expectations, it is assumed, are a major driver for food waste. Fruit and vegetables that do not conform to these standards are sorted out at the production stage, for example. Many items that are not totally fresh are taken off the shelves in supermarkets or thrown away at home. One important factor is consumers' increasing distance from agriculture and food production. This has manifold implications: to take just one example, much perfectly edible food is thrown away for presumed safety reasons immediately after the "best before" date has expired because people no longer trust their senses.
Simple solutions for this complex problem, increasing food prices through taxes, would be economically efficient, but are difficult to implement for reasons of acceptability: furthermore such a measure would negatively affect the food security of people on low incomes. As a first step towards reducing food waste in Switzerland, a stakeholder dialogue has been initiated to analyze problems and explore areas for action: as all stakeholders in the food chain have starting points for reducing waste, all must be involved in the search for solutions. This dialogue is important because measures (e.g. in such areas as trading standards, marketing by-products in the meat and milk sectors, and reviewing use-by/best before dates) can only be implemented through collaboration, meaning that a consensus must first be found. There is already such a consensus that increasing consumers' awareness is important, so measures have been initiated in this area. Continued research on the causes and extent of food waste, based on more specific and internationally harmonized definitions, is important and an effort is being made to co-ordinate it.
I am convinced that sustainable food security is only possible if production is intensified in a sustainable way, while fostering sustainable consumption. To achieve this, Swiss agricultural policy is consistently focused on the various services of a multifunctional agriculture, remunerated so as to minimize conflicts between them: producing food is a very important service, but not the only one.
Searching for ways to reduce food waste, together with all the stakeholders involved, is another priority.
In addition there is heavy investment in research since its results are crucial in solving future problems. Only improved production systems and developing a sound scientific basis for resource-saving consumption patterns and diets will bring our agriculture and food economy onto a more sustainable path and create positive spill-over effects for the whole world.