Fewer farmersThis content was published on January 15, 2010 - 13:43
It would be difficult to find a sector of the Swiss economy that has suffered more knocks in the past 20 years than Swiss farming.
That Swiss farmers are wont to complain is a part of national folklore. However, in real terms they have suffered a drop in income of at least ten per cent in the past decade.
Thousands of farms - usually on the verge of bankruptcy - have been sold. From more than 92,000 farms in 1990, there were just 61,000 left by 2008.
Many of the remaining ones survive only because their farmers have taken up a second occupation. Farms with a surface of more than 20 hectares have bucked this trend though, with their numbers increasing.
Before and during the Second World War, some 25 per cent of the population worked in agriculture. Today that figure is just three per cent.
In the 1950s Switzerland gained exemption from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - forerunner of today's World Trade Organization (WTO) - largely to protect Swiss farming from foreign competition.
This was not so much self-interest as a reflection of the fact that mountainous Switzerland does not lend itself to any kind of efficient farming.
Many farmers are opposed to a further opening of agricultural markets and closer cooperation with the European Union.
Swiss farmers need SFr2.5 billion ($1.96 billion) in direct payments or state subsidies every year, whether or not they face competition.
Some estimates suggest that supporting farming costs the Swiss taxpayer SFr4 billion annually.
Direct payments have the advantage of not simply rewarding overproduction, and can selectively promote sectors of farming working in line with Swiss agriculture policy, for instance, organic farming. Nowadays over eleven per cent of cultivated soil is farmed according to strict organic requirements.
Ultimately there are few farm products that could not be imported more cheaply than produced domestically, but this country wants to retain a level of self-sufficiency in food production. Moreover, farmers as a group have a cultural, sociological, and not least, political significance which borders on the iconic.
Even if the masses of Swiss cheese produced in the midland plain and alpine pastures (180,000 tons in 2008) cannot be sold for a real profit, farmers, cultivators, forestry workers and gardeners would still be needed to look after the 50 per cent of terrain now given over to agriculture.
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