Farming and the military are the only two truly federal policies in Switzerland. In both cases, the priority is protection. Swiss farmers sit behind a fence of border tariffs with access to subsidies twice as generous as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Like many developed nations its agricultural policy is in a process of continual reform. Since the 1980s, tariffs have reduced and subsidies have shifted to a system of decoupled direct support and ‘public good’ payments. Coming from the UK I had expected agriculture would be under pressure to reform further.
The current policies are not cost free. The tariff system increases the cost of food, 40 per cent above world market prices, and limits access to other markets while 1 per cent of gross domestic product is spent on farm subsidies. Agriculture is regularly in the political spotlight.
The Swiss Government holds numerous referenda and Parliament reviews the agricultural budget every four years. Against my expectations, being part of the public debate seems to benefit agriculture. An initiative brought by the Swiss Farmers Union seeks to include explicit references to food security to the constitution.
More than 100,000 signatures were obtained and the public vote in September is expected to be successful. As such, an enviable stability exists compared to British farm incomes. Farmers have to keep up their side of the deal though. Regulation, standards and expectations are high, especially with animal welfare.
The Swiss conceived the idea of cross-compliance and theirs is more demanding than the EU’s. Farmers cannot access subsidies unless they meet various requirements, including using 7 per cent of their land for biodiversity. Additionally, no-one over 65 can access direct payments either.
An official said: “The Swiss give farmers so much money low standards would be unacceptable.” This is the conundrum for Swiss farmers who on average have just 20 hectares (50 acres), often in challenging natural circumstances.
Support numbs them to the market, limits export opportunities and means structural reform is limited. As I leave Switzerland I believe British farming needs to consider what relationship it wants with the Government and the public; that of enabler or protector?
Jonathan is currently on a Nuffield Farming Scholarship exploring the agricultural policies of developed countries outside the EU.