Food politics and the (unlikely) rise of food populism

In Switzerland, we are used to vote on a lot of different topics. The Swiss direct democracy system includes the possibility of referendums (citizens contesting a governmental decision) and initiatives (citizens proposing political and legal changes). To give two examples, we had to vote recently for or against a basic income for all and for or against a total nuclear power ban. Needless to say, the issues addressed are often complex and the final vote can have a significant impact on the future of the country. While this system looks pretty close to an ideal democracy, examples from the past show that such referendums can leave voters flabbergasted by the consequences of their own political decisions. Let’s just look at the political rumble – both nationally and internationally – that followed the vote on the so called “mass-immigration” initiative, in February 2014. Very few of this initiative supporters anticipated that the first results would be the expulsion of Switzerland from the European research programs and a general contestation of mostly all the bilateral agreements between the country and the EU. I have to confess, I do often vote without having a definite and encompassing understanding of all the potential consequences. When I cannot have a real grasp on it, I tend just to follow the advice of people I trust… This sounds fair, but it makes me often feel a bit uncomfortable.

Well, as it happens, there are good chances that we will have to vote, in the coming years, on several initiatives targeting the Swiss agricultural policy. We already refused, in 2016 to forbid speculation on food commodities. This would probably not make a big change at the global scale, but Switzerland being an important market place for trading food commodities, the symbolic impact of a “yes” would have been interesting to assess.

Anyway, we will soon have to say:

  • if we want subsidies for farmers who leave the horns on the heads of their cows;
  • if we want to apply our national social and environmental standards also to imported food products, as suggested by the Green party;
  • if we want to reinforce the concept of food security in the Federal act, following the Swiss farmers’ Union (majoritarian);
  • or if we prefer to introduce the one of food sovereignty, as would like Uniterre, a minority farmers’ union related to the international network of la Via Campesina;
  • there is even a project for an initiative banning the use of chemicals in agriculture. Launch by a group of individuals without specific political affiliation.

Is there any chance then for important changes coming out of this process? Well, usually, initiatives that propose deep transformations tend to fail. But we already had our own little Brexit (or Trump’s election) effect in 2014. This time however, the “mass-immigration” initiative was supported by the powerful and wealthy populist party UDC-SVP. Funding, political networks, and simple (simplistic) arguments did make the difference then. Could we see the rise of a new kind of “food populism”? Will business as usual politics win the game once again? Bets are open…

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