Food democracies, prices and freedom of choice: a critical look at the recent vote in Switzerland

On Sunday the 23rd of September 2018, one year after the vote on food security (see previous post), the Swiss citizens voted on two propositions aiming at significantly changing the legal framework of the agrifood system. The first proposition was made by the Green party and offered to favour sustainable and fair products in food imports, or in other terms to apply restrictions on imports that would be related to environmental and social standards comparable those already applied for the national production. The second originated from the left-wing farmers union Uniterre and demanded to re-ground the national agricultural policy on the basis of the concept of “food sovereignty”. The proposition was based on the support of small-scale family farming and included many detailed interventions, including barriers to food imports, a ban on GMOs, the promotion of jobs in agriculture, the protection of farm workers, among others.

The first national survey on the vote intentions in August showed a huge support from the public for both texts (almost 80% of the people consulted were in favour of them). However, after an intense – even if often frustrating – public and political debate, the final vote resulted in a clear double rejection. (For more information, see here).

The two propositions were not perfect. However, they had the merit to address real problems such as the impact of food consumption beyond national borders and the increasing pressures pushing on Swiss farmers despite a high level of subsidies. But, as I said, the debate became quickly frustrating and I want to come back here to the missed opportunity for overcoming two simplistic arguments that have played a major role in making the Swiss citizens reject these propositions (according to surveys): the risk of rising food prices; and a preference for a so-called individual (consumer) responsibility over state regulation.

In the current agrifood system unsustainable products are cheaper, that is true. If you stop the possibility of buying low quality and unsustainable food, the average price will go up. However, this argument hides many aspects of food price creation, for instance the higher margins taken by retailers on certified sustainable products; the minimal proportion of the final retail price in relation to the agricultural raw material (e.g. around 10% for grain in bread); and the fact that a good part of the imported food might already follow the standards (that would have been detailed out at a later stage). Of course, the question of food access and food justice has to be taken seriously and the supporters of the two propositions should have been ready with concrete solutions that would address this risk in one way or another. But what is fundamentally more problematic to me is the success of the argument taken without criticism and manipulated by the opponents. I never heard someone bringing in the argument that sustainable food is actually not too expensive. In fact, unsustainable food is artificially made cheap because of the externalisation of environmental and social costs. If we want to solve the problems facing our food system, we will have to reintegrate those costs in some ways, while addressing the challenge of food justice.

The fact that the solutions proposed in this vote were related to several types of state interventions seemed also to bother a majority of voters. Opponents argued that people should be left free to choose to buy sustainable food, and that this is a matter of personal responsibility. In the current agrifood system, consumers have the choice (if they can afford it) to pay more and to take such responsibility, or to bear no responsibility at all (even if they are wealthy). Beyond the unfairness access to good consciousness, this seems to me a strange interpretation of responsibility. Is responsibility a question of free choice? In most instances, individual responsibility means that you assume the consequences of your actions. In our case, it would imply maybe to compensate (if this makes any sense) the impacts of unsustainable consumption practices, but not to pay more because you are doing the right choice! Furthermore, presenting state regulation as a limitation to individual responsibility reflects a dubious, simplistic and dichotomous understanding of autonomy. In this specific context, I would rather argue that having regulations that facilitate the choice for sustainable, fair and healthy food would actually give more autonomy to consumers. As reflected by the surveys prior to the vote, a large majority of people actually want a more sustainable and fair food system. What supports better consumers’ autonomy and freedom? Helping them with some guidance and regulation to actually buy more sustainable (what they apparently would like to do) or leaving them alone with the burden of choice and individual “responsibility”. In any case, scaring them with ghosts of state control and manipulating simplistic arguments that nurture fears in order to conceal real problems is sad reminder of the rise of populism – or in this case ‘food populism’!


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