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Swiss factory farming ban to be decided at the ballot box

Pigs enjoying the open air: this is the vision of agriculture advocated by those behind the initiative against intensive livestock farming. Keystone / Melanie Duchene

On September 25, Swiss citizens will vote on a ban on intensive livestock farming. This is a sensitive issue in a country that is committed to agriculture and already has very strict animal welfare legislation. 

This content was published on July 29, 2022 - 09:00

What is it about?  

Animal rights and animal welfare organisations have submitted a popular initiative to ban intensive livestock farming in Switzerland. But the government and parliament consider farm animals to be adequately protected under current legislation and are calling on voters to reject the initiative. 

What exactly does the initiative call for? 

The text of the initiative External linkcalls for the protection of the dignity of livestock and a ban on intensive farming to be enshrined in the Swiss constitution. It argues that in 25 years the welfare requirements for livestock and poultry should at least meet the criteria of the 2018 Bio Suisse standard. 

Who launched the initiative? 

The text was submitted by animal rights organisationsExternal link, including the Franz Weber Foundation, and by Sentience Politics. This association based in German-speaking Switzerland brings together activists from civil society. It is behind an initiative in canton Basel-City to recognise the fundamental rights of primates, which was rejected by 74% of voters last February. Sentience has also launched initiatives in several German-speaking cities to promote vegan food.  

The initiative against intensive livestock farming is supported by Greenpeace, Bio Suisse, the Small Farmers' Association, the Swiss Animal Protection Society, Pro Natura and the Green Party.  

How widespread is intensive livestock farming in Switzerland? 

The initiative defines intensive livestock farming as "industrial livestock farming aimed at making the production of animal products as efficient as possible and systematically undermining animal welfare." According to the Swiss government, intensive livestock farming defined in these terms is already prohibited under current legislation. The Animal Welfare ActExternal link stipulates that anyone who handles animals must take best care of their needs, ensure their welfare and not harm their dignity.  

In Switzerland, keeping hens in battery cages was banned in 1996, and current legislation stipulates the minimum dimensions of living space for pets, but also for livestock and poultry. The Ordinance on Maximum Stocking Levels in Meat and Egg ProductionExternal link sets a limit on the number of animals from each species. For example, farms may not keep more than 1,500 fattening pigs, 27,000 broiler chickens or 300 calves.  

But the initiative’s organisers view these numbers as too high to ensure the welfare of the animals and maintain that this constitutes intensive farming. By imposing the Bio Suisse standard, they want livestock and poultry to be kept in smaller groups with more space and guaranteed outdoor access. They want animals to be considered sentient beings, not commodities. 

The initiators also denounce the harmful effects of intensive livestock farming on the environment and human beings: increased resistance to antibiotics, intensified risk of pandemics and enormous greenhouse gas emissions. 

How does Switzerland compare internationally? 

In Switzerland, as elsewhere, the majority of small family farms have been replaced by large, specialised farms. The number of farms raising livestock has halved in 30 years, while the average number of animals per farm has risen sharply.  

However, this structural shift is taking place more slowly than in neighbouring countries, where farms are much larger and growing faster, according to the Swiss agricultural research centre Agroscope. The number of dairy cows, cattle and pigs per farm is also higher in Germany, France and Italy. In contrast, it is lower in Austria. 

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Swiss animal protection legislation is particularly strict and also applies to livestock. It goes much further than the laws in force in European Union countries, as it not only sets requirements for construction and available space, but also regulates the training standards for farmers and conditions for feeding and transport.

Switzerland also stands out for its animal welfare promotion programmes introduced in the 1990s. The government grants additional subsidies to farms that have particularly humane accommodation systems or that introduce regular outdoor exercise. Today, these programmes are applied in almost all farms for laying hens and in the majority of cattle and pig farms. 

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Who opposes the initiative against intensive livestock farming? 

The government and a majority of parliament are calling on the people to reject the initiative. Right-wing and centre parties do not want to introduce new restrictions on livestock farming, given that the Swiss animal protection law is one of the strictest in the world. The initiative is also opposed by the business community, the main Swiss Farmers' Association and almost all other farmers' groups.  

For opponentsExternal link, animal welfare is already a top priority in Switzerland and the scale of livestock farming is limited. If the initiative succeeds, they fear many farms will be unable to expand and find themselves in great difficulty.  

Opponents of the initiative also warn that production costs would rise and be passed on to consumers. Imports of meat and eggs could increase, which would encourage people to shop over the border. Furthermore, opponents argue that the application of Swiss standards to imported products would be impossible, as this would violate the nation's World Trade Organization obligations.

Translated from French by Catherine Hickley

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