Farmers want help to adapt to market
Switzerland's farmers have warned their revenues will drop further if prices continue to fall and markets become more open to foreign competitors.
But the Swiss Farmers' Association said on Thursday the agricultural sector was prepared to adapt to new conditions with political support.
"Most farms are in a critical economic situation and breaking even is a major challenge for them," pointed out the association's director, Jacques Bourgeois.
Speaking in Barberêche, the village near Fribourg that is home to Economics Minister Joseph Deiss, he added that 80 per cent of Swiss farmers would earn more working outside the agricultural sector. Many of them in fact already earn extra revenue away from the farm.
Despite these financial difficulties, farmers don't want to come across as whingers, according to association president Hansjörg Walter. "They want to adapt, diversify and find niche markets," he said.
Walter believes that no other economic sector in Switzerland has gone through as much change as agriculture in the past 15 years. But to continue adapting, farmers need support, especially from politicians.
Production costs in particular need to be cut. With distributors dropping prices, farmers' margins are being squeezed.
"We pay nearly twice as much as consumers in the European Union for housing, water, electricity and gas," said Bourgeois.
To lower production costs, the association suggests allowing parallel imports of agricultural equipment and other means under the planned revision of Switzerland's farm policy.
The reforms proposed by the government for 2011 – aimed at improving farmers' competitiveness - have attracted widespread criticism, especially from the agricultural sector.
The farmers' association itself has said the proposals threaten the survival of agriculture in Switzerland. It believes that if they were implemented, they would result in a 25-per-cent cut in revenue and cause serious economic damage to the sector.
The association has put forward a series of proposals of its own. These include better sharing of revenue among all those involved in the distribution of agricultural products, as well as complete remuneration of farmers for tasks considered to be in the public interest.
Farmers fear that markets will become more open to foreign competition as Switzerland comes under pressure from the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Swiss agricultural products could lose up to a third of their value, the association reckons.
To protect farmers' income, it wants the Swiss authorities to ensure during talks with the WTO that import duties are maintained for agricultural products.
swissinfo with agencies
There are around 65,000 farms across Switzerland compared with 80,000 in 1990.
The number of farms goes down by five every day.
In 2001, 4.1% of the population was working in agriculture.
Between 2003 and 2007, the government plans to spend SFr14.092 billion on the agricultural sector.
Between 2008 and 2011, it intends to reduce this sum to SFr13.4 billion.
In 2003, agriculture represented 1.4% of Switzerland's Gross Domestic Product.
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