‘We need to think about food and agriculture in a more interconnected way’
23.06.2022 The current crises we are experiencing are putting food security at risk for many worldwide. What is the situation in Switzerland? And what new challenges is the global community facing as a result? Sonja Schönberg, research associate at the Department of Health Professions, and Martin Pidoux, lecturer in agricultural policy and markets at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences, give their view of the situation.
What exactly is meant by food security?
Martin Pidoux: Food security deals with the question of whether there is enough food available to ensure the survival of the world’s population. The concept is often confused with that of food safety. Food safety relates to ensuring that the food available complies with hygiene standards and is of sufficiently high quality to provide nutritional benefit.
What is the situation like in Switzerland?
Martin Pidoux: The easiest way to answer that is by referring to the rate of self-sufficiency. This figure indicates the extent to which domestic production can cover the needs of domestic consumption. Switzerland’s gross self-sufficiency is about 60%. This figure reflects the proportion of our needs that we can meet ourselves. Our net self-sufficiency is slightly lower, at 55%, because our domestic products, including meat and eggs, are produced in part using imported feed. However, it should also be pointed out that Switzerland has a self-sufficiency rate of more than 100% in certain products; for example, we produce more milk than we consume.
So Switzerland is in a good position as far as food security goes.
Martin Pidoux: Yes, that’s right. As a wealthy country, we also have the option of buying in additional food in the event of supply shortages. Unfortunately, not everyone can do this. Statistics from countries in North Africa – for example, Egypt and Libya – show that these countries import 90%-95% of their grain requirements, more than 90% of which comes from Ukraine and Russia. In the light of the current war, that is a critical situation. The question being asked in Switzerland is thus almost philosophical in nature: should we import more food when we know that other countries need it in order to survive? I am convinced that we need to think in a more interconnected way. Our own situation is not critical, that’s true – but we are not alone in this world.
You’ve just mentioned it: what effect do the current crises – namely, climate change and the war in Ukraine – have on food security?
Martin Pidoux: They lead to huge challenges. Production costs have already undergone an enormous increase due to the war in Ukraine, and food prices are jumping. Calls to increase production in order to ensure food security are becoming more insistent, even in Switzerland. But the Federal Council has just chosen to focus on promoting biodiversity. This is a conflict of goals. I personally think that it is important to ensure food security. At the same time, we cannot pretend that issues relating to biodiversity and climate change have suddenly disappeared.
Sonja Schönberg: Yes, I would agree with that. What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy, but we absolutely need to focus on what we spent so much time and energy working on up to the beginning of the year. This is where the concept of planetary health (see box) comes in. It shows that as humans, we are a part of nature and depend on it. That means that if our soil reaches a point where we cannot grow anything, we will have a real problem.
How can global food security be increased?
Sonja Schönberg: What we should be aware of with global food security is that the problem is not that too little food is produced, but that it's not distributed fairly.
Martin Pidoux: Exactly. If we want to improve food security generally, we must look at it as a whole and think in terms of sustainable food systems. The key here is the issue of distribution and how to organise the global food system. When it comes to distribution, there are two extreme approaches. On the one hand is self-sufficiency as it existed about 300 years ago. Imports did not exist – people simply produced and ate food where they lived. And on the other is a global market where a lot is imported and little is produced locally. I am convinced that the solution lies somewhere between these two extremes. At the same time, Sonja mentioned that we need to put in place a food system that’s healthy for both people and the environment.
Can consumers play a part in this?
Sonja Schönberg: There are various ways to relieve pressure on the food system and have a positive impact on food security. First, we – and by that, I mean all healthy adults in Switzerland and similarly wealthy countries – can focus on reducing the amount of animal products in our diets. If we insist on continuing to eat as much meat as before, it will mean that land that could be used to grow food for humans is instead used to grow feed for animals. What’s more, many people eat so much meat that they could reduce their intake without any ill-effect on their health, and without having to replace meat with protein from plant sources. According to the latest knowledge, a healthy adult needs just 0.8 g protein per kilo of body weight. Second, in order to replace animal protein sources, we can include more legumes in our diet. However, this is on the assumption that our agricultural systems can produce enough legumes and yield a decent living from growing them. We can also buy more organic products. Organic farming generally aims to stabilise ecosystems. Third, we must waste less food. A large proportion of food waste happens in the home, and that's because we barely plan our grocery shop any more. We are less used to storing food at home and simply don’t know when food is no longer good enough to eat. I think that teaching theoretical and practical skills related to nutrition and cooking should be integrated into school programmes as a key priority – and should continue throughout all stages of life.
Should political decisions also be taken in this regard?
Martin Pidoux: That’s a complex question. For example, we really should eat less meat overall. But many producers tell me that they don’t intend to lower their production unless there are signs of a decline in consumption. Politically, we’re in something of a stalemate, because no one is willing to take the first step. Food production has been regulated by the government for many years. But in our liberal democracy, consumption has not.
Sonja Schönberg: Yes, I agree that it is complex. I firmly believe in the concept of planetary health, which seeks to transform food systems. But it often collides with the reality of the dependencies and requirements that characterise agriculture today. When it comes to making food systems more sustainable, it seems to me that the consumer side has not changed to the same extent as the producer side. And I’m convinced that we need to take an approach that’s braver, more decisive and radically different.
Are we at a turning point? In the sense that we are clearly being shown that something fundamental needs to change in the food system?
Martin Pidoux: I do think that the mentality is changing. My impression is that people are more aware nowadays of how important, yet challenging, it is to produce high-quality food. I even notice it in my students. They want to do more. They have a lot of ideas and are open to discussion.
It’s important to mention that there needs to be more awareness on both sides. The general public must listen to farmers and recognise that food has value. On the other hand, farmers also have to be more open to people’s needs.
Sonja Schönberg: I think the turning point has long since arrived. But we also have a window of opportunity right now. The idea of thinking about food and agriculture in a more interconnected way has been given a boost in the light of global political developments. This is our opportunity.
Planetary health and the planetary health diet
The concept of planetary health is a health narrative based on values of sustainability. It considers human health in connection with political, economic, social and natural systems. It calls for the recognition of planetary boundaries that have been transgressed by the dominance of human activity and urges responsibility and more interdisciplinary engagement with the complex relationships between and within ecosystems in order to protect our environment.
The planetary health diet contributes to better planetary health. It is a diet that takes into account human and planetary health in equal measure. It was published by the EAT-Lancet Commission. The Commission is made up of 37 scientists from various disciplines and countries.
Sustainable Development Solutions Network
In 2015, Switzerland made a commitment to contribute to reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The food system offers a lot of potential here. To this end, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network SDSN set up a group of experts to develop a basis for discussion and recommendations for action. At BFH, Sonja Schönberg, Martin Pidoux and others are part of this group of experts.
Sonja Schönberg is a research associate at the Department of Health Professions. In her teaching and research, she focuses on sustainable ways of eating, the role of dieticians in the food system of the future, and planetary health as a values-based thinking and design framework for health professions.
Martin Pidoux is a lecturer and head of the Rural Economics and Sociology group at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences. The agricultural engineer worked at the Federal Office for Agriculture and the Swiss Farmers Union before joining Bern University of Applied Sciences as an expert in agricultural policy and markets. His work has involved carrying out a detailed analysis of the topic of food security.