Will Switzerland Ban Synthetic Pesticides?

“….Bhutan said that as one of the only places in the world that can claim it is phasing out synthetic pesticides en masse, it would be ideally placed to recoup any losses once other nations wake up and realize that you can’t put profits ahead of health.

For Switzerland, a not insignificant one out of every nine farms is already growing produce without use of synthetic pesticides, and that appears to be a rising trend. Clearly, there is an appetite for pesticide-free produce.

Will Switzerland Ban Synthetic Pesticides?

Swiss campaigners appear to have successfully secured the necessary number of petition signatures to trigger a direct ballot initiative that could see all synthetic pesticides in the country banned.

Over 100,000 citizens have signed on to the petition, entitled “For a Switzerland free of synthetic pesticides”, which now triggers the long but direct democracy process of creating the ban.

The current ballot text reads in part: “The use of any synthetic pesticide in agriculture, in the transformation of agricultural products and in the maintenance of fields is forbidden. The import for commercial purposes of food itself containing synthetic pesticides or for which synthetic pesticides were used during its production is forbidden. ”

The move was not organized by any political party, nor was it the result of a concerted effort by any one campaign group. Instead, it was ”Born out of a non-political citizen’s movement” which believes that synthetic pesticides are either directly affecting our health or indirectly contributing to health problems by impacting our environment and wildlife.

They argue that any loss of international trade — should that happen — is a small price to pay for the knowledge that the food they are eating is safe.

Pesticide manufacturers, of course, argue that their products have gone through rigorous testing and their safety at field exposure levels is settled. As recent studies have shown though, there is some uncertainty on this because of the sheer amount of pesticides we are using.

Those against synthetic pesticides argue that such a risk is simply unacceptable.

Could organic farming on this scale work?

We know organic farming can work small-scale. But when you involve international trade, things become somewhat more complex, including defining what actually counts as “organic”. Here, though, there is a more clear benchmark: the absence of synthetic pesticides.

Switzerland wouldn’t actually be the first nation to enact a synthetic pesticides ban, so it’s useful to look to those who have blazed the trail.

There is one other place in the world to have already enacted a ban on synthetic pesticides at the national level. Bhutan, in South Asia, enacted a new farming policy in 2013 that shuns synthetic pesticides and is largely organic. The Buddhist nation has walked the path toward being a wholly organic farming nation ever since.

The importance of this first act cannot be overstated.

However, it is arguable that Switzerland enacting a synthetic pesticides ban may be more significant in terms of global politics, and at the very least in terms of European farming policies.

We know that Europe is split over key issues of farming policy. For example, European lawmakers recently extended the near-total ban on neonicotinoids due to their evidenced negative impact on our pollinating insects and wildlife.

However, despite a growing body of evidence that the weed killer glyphosate may harm human health, the European Commission has reauthorized its use for the next few years.

If Swiss voters did embrace this ban, it would mean that Switzerland would no longer accept foods that were reared using synthetic pesticides.

This is particularly meaningful given, as the BBC points out, Switzerland is home to the world’s largest pesticides manufacturer, Syngenta. The company has branches across many European countries including the UK, but to lose Switzerland would be a body blow.

The question of course is: how sustainable is this? Economists said that Bhutan would lose trade and money as a result of its synthetic pesticides ban. However, Bhutan said that as one of the only places in the world that can claim it is phasing out synthetic pesticides en masse, it would be ideally placed to recoup any losses once other nations wake up and realize that you can’t put profits ahead of health.

For its part, Bhutan has rigorously enforced its promise to screen and, if necessary, ban imported foods like chilies and cauliflower, if they have high pesticide levels. Exact figures on economic impact of this ban aren’t yet available, but clearly Bhutan is comfortable sticking to its principles.

For Switzerland, a not insignificant one out of every nine farms is already growing produce without use of synthetic pesticides, and that appears to be a rising trend. Clearly, there is an appetite for pesticide-free produce.

What’s next for the pesticides ban?

The petition signatures now go before the Federal Chancellery in Bern. They will be checked, and then the petition will be handed over to Switzerland’s Federal Council. This triggers a one-year window in which federal authorities can make recommendations to lawmakers.

Then the petition passes to lawmakers who then have a further two years to consider the text, approve it and schedule a vote, or come up with an alternative that could also appear on the ballot.

If the general public do vote in favor of the ban, the phase out would be around 10 years. European campaigners will be watching this process closely and may hope to mirror this direct action to bring an end to wide-spread pesticide use once and for all.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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