Fotos: Lucas Ziegler

Food secu­rity safe­guards democracy

Lukas Fesenfeld’s research at ETH focuses on sustainable food systems. He was the academic lead on the report ‘Wege in die Ernährungszukunft der Schweiz’, examining Switzerland’s food future, and collaborated on the recent ‘The Economics of the Food System Transformation’ report, which looks at the issue from a global perspective.

Your rese­arch focu­ses on trans­for­ma­tion towards a sustainable food system. How rele­vant is that to a demo­cra­tic society?

It’s very rele­vant. At the moment, for exam­ple, we’re running a corpus lingu­i­stic analy­sis of the public discourse on food in various count­ries around the world – for exam­ple the EU nati­ons, India, Nige­ria, South Africa, the US and Switz­er­land. We’re exami­ning milli­ons of media reports. Eating is a central element of culture. It’s not just asso­cia­ted with emotio­nal and biolo­gi­cal proces­ses – it also has a key socio­po­li­ti­cal dimen­sion, and the issue of meat, in parti­cu­lar, is hugely polarising.

What does that mean?

What and how we eat is incre­asingly linked to a social iden­tity. Certain groups of people are defi­ned by it. We have the stereo­ty­pes of the urban vegans or the Trump voters with their burger and steak.

What effect does that have on a society?

Attri­bu­ti­ons are made that rein­force group iden­ti­ties. It makes it more diffi­cult to listen to other people’s views. Yet, food can have precis­ely the oppo­site effect.

How so?

Food can bring people to the table so that they meet face-to-face. There are some fanta­stic projects going on, where people from diffe­rent cultu­ral back­grounds or with diffe­rent poli­ti­cal beliefs are brought to the table – lite­rally – to cook and eat toge­ther. It’s a great oppor­tu­nity. I feel it’s parti­cu­larly important, though, that we act on a poli­ti­cal level, that we change the gover­nance of the food system – the insti­tu­ti­ons and the nature of socio­po­li­ti­cal colla­bo­ra­tion. In our report on a sustainable food future for Switz­er­land, we called for the crea­tion of a Future Commit­tee that would allow the key social stake­hol­ders and inte­rest groups, repre­sen­ting private and public inte­rests in the food system, to work toge­ther to build confi­dence and nego­tiate solutions.

‘The trans­for­ma­tion of food system is important for social cohesion.’

Lukas Fesen­feld, poli­ti­cal scientist

Who would set up a commit­tee like that?

Ideally, it would be legi­ti­mi­sed by parlia­ment or the Fede­ral Coun­cil. It shouldn’t depend on indi­vi­dual fede­ral offices. It needs a compre­hen­sive range of stake­hol­ders, repre­sen­ting the full gamut of the food system – so along­side produ­cers and farmers, you would have the proces­sing indus­try, retail, consu­mers and NGOs that are commit­ted to protec­ting workers, popu­la­tion health, animal rights and the environment.

How do you decide who the stake­hol­ders are?

They would have to be selec­ted on the basis of trans­pa­rent crite­ria, syste­ma­tic stake­hol­der analy­sis and a scien­ti­fi­cally moni­to­red process. The Future Committee’s work should precede and accom­pany the parlia­men­tary process. The results of these discus­sions can then be fed into the legis­la­tive process and, ideally, help bring about more stable, longer-term solu­ti­ons. It could help coun­ter the widening gaps.

How can we achieve that?

It’s important to focus on the oppor­tu­ni­ties and on pulling toge­ther. For a long time now, the global food system – even in Switz­er­land – has follo­wed a poli­ti­cal and econo­mic ratio­nale that encou­ra­ged a concen­tra­tion on larger-scale opera­ti­ons along the value chain. If the super­mar­ket chains buy goods from larger produ­cers, they bene­fit from econo­mies of scale, which, in turn, allows chea­per prices. Consu­mers have grown accus­to­med to this price level. In many count­ries, subsi­dies have also been tail­o­red to large-scale opera­ti­ons rather than sustaina­bi­lity. A disin­cen­tive. It forced many smal­ler farms to give up and led to major frus­tra­tion, precis­ely because many people in the agri­cul­tu­ral sector see it as their life’s work. As we have obser­ved in other count­ries, this situa­tion can be exploi­ted by anti-demo­cra­tic forces. This is why trans­forming the food system is so important for social cohesion.

How can Switz­er­land – a coun­try that is around 50 per cent self-suffi­ci­ent – play any kind of role?

Switz­er­land can play an important role in achie­ving grea­ter sustaina­bi­lity by exami­ning the nature of dome­stic produc­tion and consump­tion and also by regu­la­ting the import and export of food. At the moment, for exam­ple, around 77 per cent of green­house gas emis­si­ons asso­cia­ted with the food consu­med in Switz­er­land is gene­ra­ted abroad. The extent of a country’s self-suffi­ci­ency is not the only indi­ca­tor when it comes to making the trans­for­ma­tion towards a sustainable food system. Although econo­mic, envi­ron­men­tal and health goals could easily be combi­ned with an increase in Switzerland’s self-suffi­ci­ency. Food secu­rity and sustaina­bi­lity are mutually dependent.

How would we make that work?

By trans­forming consu­mer beha­viour. That would have an impact on produc­tion and proces­sing as well as on imports. At the moment, over 40 per cent of Switzerland’s arable land is used to grow animal feed. Feed imports mean we can add at least another 200,000 hecta­res abroad to this total. That’s inef­fi­ci­ent and is a threat to our food secu­rity. These arable areas here and abroad could be used to produce signi­fi­cantly more plant-based food for human consump­tion. But, at the same time, it’s important to empha­sise that Switz­er­land has a loca­tio­nal advan­tage when it comes to pasture-based live­stock farming, parti­cu­larly in the Alpine region.

‘Even Switz­er­land can feel the effects much faster than we previously anticipated.’

Lukas Fesen­feld

So live­stock farming would make sense?

From a global sustaina­bi­lity perspec­tive, it would make sense for Switz­er­land to import certain varie­ties of fruit and vege­ta­ble that are not ideal for culti­va­tion here. In turn, we could export animal products, provi­ded these are produ­ced on exis­ting pasture land and without impor­ted feed. Over­all, howe­ver, for this to work, dome­stic consump­tion of animal products would need to fall, and Swiss consu­mers would need to consume less and focus prima­rily on Swiss products from pasture-based live­stock. This would not only lead to less consump­tion of animal products as a whole but, speci­fi­cally, less consump­tion of poul­try and pork products, which are parti­cu­larly reli­ant on impor­ted feed.

So, from a global stand­point, import­ing less isn’t neces­s­a­rily more sustainable. The key is to import the right things?

Exactly. In an ideal scena­rio, all count­ries and regi­ons around the world would produce those products for which their loca­tion puts them at an advan­tage from a social, ecolo­gi­cal and, to some extent, econo­mic perspec­tive. But that’s not how things work in the real world.

How can we promote pasture-based production?

On the one hand, we need to make it more expen­sive to import feed. At the same time, we need to incen­ti­vise value crea­tion in alter­na­tive areas, for exam­ple growing pulses. Or we allow farms to adopt new sources of income by crea­ting solar parks, for exam­ple. At the end of the day, howe­ver, consu­mer accep­tance will be crucial.

What will that depend on?

The expe­ri­ments we have run with the gene­ral public show that, with the right combi­na­tion of measu­res, accep­tance of change when it comes to consump­tion habits is alre­ady higher than is often assu­med. Along­side the state, retail and canteens can play an important part. Marke­ting will play a huge role. And subsi­dies and fiscal poli­cies will also be crucial. Today, there is a huge amount of funding for live­stock – inclu­ding non-pasture-based live­stock. That incen­ti­vi­ses produ­cers and, sadly, doesn’t promote sustainable consump­tion. When it comes to the trans­for­ma­tion process, it is vital not to aban­don farmers in parti­cu­lar. They should bene­fit from the move to more arable farming and pasture-based livestock.

Is that going to be enough to trans­form the food system and meet the sustaina­bi­lity goals?

If we are going to be serious about the UN sustaina­bi­lity goals that Switz­er­land has commit­ted to, and if Switz­er­land wants to make a fair contri­bu­tion to achie­ving them by 2030, we need to move much faster. Sadly, that’s not parti­cu­larly reali­stic from a poli­ti­cal or econo­mic view­point at the moment.

What would be a viable path?

We need cohe­sion rather than pola­ri­sa­tion. One possi­ble pathway would be a logi­cal sequence of measu­res. First, we need to focus on the oppor­tu­ni­ties and fore­ground the poten­tial for new value chains. The new Danish fund to support the expan­sion of plant-based value chains is a good exam­ple here. This could be follo­wed by gradual adjus­t­ments to regu­la­tion and taxation.

Could foun­da­ti­ons take on a role here?

The nonpro­fit sector could help kick-start the process. We will need a lot of acti­vi­ties at the start, inclu­ding in niche markets. Foun­da­ti­ons could also take respon­si­bi­lity by helping to create a Future Commit­tee. Their support could also help ensure that pilot projects are successfully inte­gra­ted along the value chain. We often see projects that only cover a speci­fic area and don’t consider how the over­all value chain needs to look if trans­for­ma­tion is to succeed. The same applies to the work of foundations.


Foun­da­ti­ons can achieve more by working toge­ther. Luckily, this is start­ing to happen – they’re start­ing to consider where they comple­ment one another, where they can support one another and where they can have grea­ter impact together.

And initiate deve­lo­p­ments through pilot projects?

Pilot projects that are imple­men­ted well can show that some­thing works. They can lead produ­cers to make chan­ges, find custo­mers and poli­ti­ci­ans to adjust the way funding is hand­led. If we then want to scale up the project, howe­ver, the requi­red totals will exceed the capa­bi­li­ties of the nonpro­fit sector. So, here too, it makes sense to take a stra­te­gic and gradual approach and to finance the initia­tive with diffe­rent forms of funding. At the end of the day, the ideal would be a large-scale trans­for­ma­tion fund, as outlined in our report. This fund could cover the costs of focu­sed consul­ta­tion during the trans­for­ma­tion process, support rese­arch and deve­lo­p­ment and reim­burse infra­struc­tu­ral expen­dit­ure rela­ting to the trans­for­ma­tion along the value chain. There also needs to be finan­cial compen­sa­tion for the losers.

Whom do you expect the losers to be?

I’m thin­king, for exam­ple, of farms that have recently inves­ted in new cowsheds because the current subs­idy policy encou­ra­ged that. We need to diffe­ren­tiate between entre­pre­neu­rial accoun­ta­bi­lity and encou­ra­ge­ment through social subs­idy poli­cies. It will be crucial to clarify when the decis­ion to invest was taken so that farms that lose capi­tal as a result of the trans­for­ma­tion process are awarded fair compensation.

‘It’s important to focus on the opportunities.’

Lukas Fesen­feld

There’s alre­ady a lot of money being poured into agriculture.

Exactly. Inclu­ding public money. Some of that needs to be rerou­ted. And over the long term, we won’t neces­s­a­rily need so much new money. Accor­ding to esti­ma­tes, food consump­tion in Switz­er­land at the current rate will gene­rate exter­nal costs of around 35 billion francs per year that are now incur­red in other areas such as health­care or envi­ron­men­tal damage. If we include these costs, society as a whole would profit from a trans­for­ma­tion towards a sustainable food system.

So a more sustainable food system would also be better for our health?

Yes, of course. It depends on the defi­ni­tion of sustaina­bi­lity. Normally, it includes a balan­ced, healthy diet. For exam­ple, there’s the Plane­tary Health Diet approach. This concept defi­nes a menu that takes account of the health of both people and planet.

How do we achieve that sort of transformation?

On the one hand, the stake­hol­ders today reco­g­nise that the oppor­tu­ni­ties are grea­ter than previously assu­med. On the other hand, new inte­rest groups are popping up, as they did with rene­wa­ble energy, and they are campaig­ning for funda­men­tal reform, inclu­ding chan­ges to the subs­idy policy and tariffs. That’s not yet a reali­stic option when it comes to the poli­cies gover­ning food and agri­cul­ture because too many stake­hol­ders are still profiting from the status quo, or at least believe they are. There will only be an inte­rest in change if we can credi­bly demons­trate that trans­for­ma­tion will open up major oppor­tu­ni­ties. We need concrete measu­res to achieve that. So not just impo­sing new cons­traints – we need the new measu­res to go hand-in-hand with a simpli­fi­ca­tion in the admi­nis­tra­tive workload for farmers.

Can you give us an example?

If mini­mum indi­ca­tors for envi­ron­men­tal protec­tion are estab­lished at regio­nal level, for exam­ple, these can be checked with the aid of satel­li­tes and public subsi­dies can be paid on the basis of this data. The admi­nis­tra­tive workload is redu­ced. Small farms bene­fit in parti­cu­lar. On the consu­mer side, there’s the possi­bi­lity of chan­ges in the way canteens are run but also the intro­duc­tion of an animal welfare tax – some­thing they’re curr­ently discus­sing in Germany… That would not only change consump­tion beha­viour – it would also gene­rate new resour­ces for the trans­for­ma­tion. This funding is important for farmers who are making chan­ges. They need plan­ning secu­rity and relia­ble finance.

Does trans­forming food secu­rity work against sustainability?

Globally, today’s food system is respon­si­ble for around 30 per cent of green­house gas emis­si­ons, a large propor­tion of species loss and around 70 per cent of freshwa­ter usage. Accor­ding to the global report by the Food System Econo­mics Commis­sion, which I worked on, the annual costs of the current food system for humans and the envi­ron­ment amount to over 10 tril­lion dollars a year. With the wedding-cake model of sustaina­bi­lity, all social and ecolo­gi­cal goals are reli­ant on an intact ecosys­tem. Where that is absent, the economy can become unsta­ble, resul­ting in hunger, conflict, pande­mics and poli­ti­cal unrest. That quickly impacts on global value crea­tion. Even Switz­er­land can feel the effects much faster than we previously anticipated.

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