Farmers find they are not worlds apart

The conference took place under the slogan "We Feed the World" (Swissaid) swissaid

Farmers from India, Ecuador and Tanzania have been visiting their Swiss counterparts in a bid to promote mutual understanding.

This content was published on October 22, 2005 - 14:17

At the end of the visit they joined forces to call for a fairer deal for agriculture in global trade talks.

The ten-day trip by six farmers was organised by the charity, Swissaid, and the Swiss Farmers' Association.

At a conference earlier this month in the Swiss capital, Bern, entitled "We Feed the World" the farmers reported back on their experiences.

Rosalva Congacha, an organic farmer from Ecuador, said she was impressed at how much her Swiss counterparts looked after the environment. In her home country deforestation was a big problem, she said.

For his part, Adinath Ombale, an organic cotton producer from India, praised plans for a moratorium on genetically modified organisms in Switzerland, which is due to come to a vote on November 27.

Shared concerns

But the trip was not all about the obvious differences between farming in Switzerland and in developing countries, said Simonetta Sommaruga, the president of Swissaid. The two sides also shared some of the same concerns.

These included high production costs at a time when product prices were falling, genetically modified plants, and cuts in state subsidies.

Cheap imports from Columbia were decimating milk prices in Ecuador, said Congacha, whereas Ombale was particularly worried about the use of genetically modified seeds in his native state of Maharashtra, which he said had not lived up to expectations.

In a joint statement, the farmers called for more national and international support for agricultural policy.

Production should take place under the slogan "locally produced, locally consumed" and the use of genetically modified organisms should be limited, they said.


The farmers urged the Swiss and other governments to take these arguments into consideration during World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva on slashing global trade barriers by cutting agricultural tariffs and subsidies.

Swiss Farmers Association head Hansjörg Walter added that Swiss farmers were not against liberalising the agricultural markets as such, but wanted fair trade for all.

The negotiations ended last Wednesday with no breakthrough on the thorny question of agriculture.

The talks came ahead of a summit in Hong Kong in December to mark the final stage of the WTO's Doha round of talks. These are aimed at reducing protectionism and promoting trade to aid development in poorer countries.

Also at the farmers' conference was Christian Häberli, head of international affairs at the Federal Agriculture Office.

Similarities and differences

He said that it had been exciting for the visitors to come to Switzerland and for all groups to find common ground.

"But I think also they have realised how much they do not have in common, and not just the machines or the number of tractors, because we have completely different production conditions," Häberli told swissinfo.

He added that the visitors couldn't give a complete picture of the agricultural sector in the developing world because the situation varied from country to country.

There were also differences within countries, with some carrying out subsistence farming to feed families and others exporting or selling at markets.

"Even in Switzerland it's diverse, we are not subsistence farmers and we are not even catering only to our local market," explained Häberli.

"Half of our milk is turned into cheese and half of our cheese is exported, meaning that one cow out of four works for exports," he said.


Häberli said the next big challenge for Switzerland was structural change in the sector. For the past 50 years, between two and three per cent of farms have closed down annually, mainly due to owners not finding successors.

"What we fear now is that with WTO and other developments, this could accelerate over and beyond what is considered a politically and economically acceptable change and lead to serious social problems, especially in the remote areas of this country," said Häberli.

The government has already outlined its changes in agricultural policy for 2007-2011, including stiff subsidy cuts aimed at increasing competition and productivity.

"We have put a considerable weight on these changes, which could be painful and which are already painful, but which still are better than agricultural policy finding itself blocked and unable to move with the times."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

In brief

Key WTO talks in Geneva have ended with no breakthrough on cutting agricultural tariffs and subsidies.

The United States offered to cut farm subsidies by 60%, but called on the European Union and Japan to make bigger cuts in return.

In response the EU indicated it was willing to at least halve its highest tariffs on farm imports, an offer US trade representative Rob Portman said was insufficient.

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