By: Emily Ott
Switzerland is one the smallest countries located in Western Europe, yet it has a large reputation on the global scale. Switzerland is considered one of the world’s wealthiest countries in natural beauty, resources, GDP, and innovation; however, it still has some issues to work out with regard to water conservation and relative policies. Swiss water policy is reviewed by the Federal government and further specified within the distinct cantons. While the government oversees protection of Swiss water, the individual laws and policies specific to each canton is up to jurisdiction of the voters and local authorities within the individual communities. The most pressing water problem in Switzerland currently is the non-point source pollution of both groundwater and surface water as a result of extensive farming practices. As a result of inevitable run-off water, the Swiss need to be more careful about farming practices that put water in danger. In order to conserve the integrity of public water, private farmers must have an incentive to alter their farming practices to avoid nitrate pollution. Within the paper, it is suggested that a potential way to decrease the pollution is to change the traditional approach to farming as a whole. Integrating the option for innovative farming structure, through indoor vertical farms could be a solution for Switzerland’s water pollution problem. Though this idea may have potential cultural and economic risks involved, a slow transition of vertical farming could in fact boost Swiss economy, food self-sufficiency, and pride in ecological water conservation.
A Sustainable Switzerland: Water Policy to Conserve and Protect
Switzerland is one the smallest countries located in Western Europe. With a total area of only 41,277 square km, the entire country is similar in size to the US state of New Jersey. Despite its tiny expanse, Switzerland has a large reputation on the global scale. It is considered one of the wealthiest countries in immense natural beauty and overall GDP. Self-sufficient and topographically separated from its neighboring countries of Austria, Germany, Italy, and France, Switzerland is rarely bothered. During World War II, Switzerland maintained its policy of neutrality largely because traveling over the Alps to get to Swiss cities was too much effort. The rugged mountain range served as a natural armor keeping the Swiss safe from attack. The Swiss tradition of neutrality still remains evident in their economy, government, and culture, but Switzerland has become more willing to initiate peaceful international relations with the passing time. “The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland’s role in many United Nations and international organizations, has strengthened Switzerland’s ties with its neighbors” (The World Factbook). Swiss efforts to improve communication with neighboring countries have also helped bridge the gaps between Swiss citizens separated by language barriers. Depending on location, Swiss residents speak one or more than one of the official national languages, which include standard High German, Swiss German dialect, French, and Italian. Although the Swiss work closely with the European Union, especially regarding trade, Swiss government officials and citizens continue to vote against the motion to join the EU. Rooted in historical conventions and perhaps a case of nationwide pride, the Swiss tend to stick to their ways and are generally fearful of major change. “Karin Gilland-Lutz, a political scientist at the University of Berne, says many people simply fear losing a way of life they regard as superior” (Foulkes). Numerous Swiss are concerned that joining a larger power could threaten their values of democracy, neutrality, and individuality. While separate from the EU, the Swiss are doing substantially well economically with one of the highest GDPs in the world. Switzerland may be unwilling to join the EU, but is certainly willing to work alongside it to maintain competition. Consequently, the EU has served as a model for many Swiss economic decisions and movements. “Some trade protectionism remains, particularly for its small agricultural sector. The fate of the Swiss economy is tightly linked to that of its neighbors in the euro zone, which purchases half of Swiss exports” (The World Factbook). Over half of Swiss land is dedicated to agricultural and pasture use, yet urbanization is on the rise, as is population growth. According to the last census, 8,121,830 people live in Switzerland, within one of the 26 cantons. The cantons, similar to US states, include both rural and urban land, and function underneath the national Swiss Confederation. The Confederation was established in 1291 and maintains the structure of a direct democracy with three branches. The Swiss government is highly efficient and forward thinking especially when it comes to environmental protection measures, which are managed by the Federal Bureau of Environment (FOEN). One of the most pressing areas of concern for the FOEN is Switzerland’s water quality.
When approaching global water challenges, most would not think that a well-developed, wealthy, bountiful country like Switzerland would have any major issues with water supply and quality. Switzerland is recognized around the world for having some of the most beautiful scenery, especially in the Alps where rivers and waterfalls of fresh water from melting snow flow abundantly. In fact, the wealth of water in Switzerland gives it the title of the “Water Tower of Europe”; an appropriate name provided that “six percent of Europe’s total freshwater stock is stored in Swiss glaciers, streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater” (Mauch 2). The terrain of the country is predominately made up of mountains, lakes, forests, and land set aside specifically for livestock grazing and growing crops. However, with this terrain and abundant supply of water is also a potential for natural disasters such as flooding, landslides, avalanches. In efforts to control these disasters, “90% of Switzerland’s 65,000-kilometre-long network of rivers and streams have been straightened, dammed, canalized or channeled underground” (Mauch 5). While water infrastructure is helpful in disaster prevention and water management, it is important to note that structural modifications to natural waterways can have negative effects, such as damaging animal habitats and preventing the natural renewal of groundwater. “In Switzerland, 80% of all drinking water comes from ground water springs and is generally of good quality. However, some problems have been observed, such as undesirable traces of pollutants” (Oberle 1). According to the FOEN, the largest issue regarding water in Switzerland is not the excessive quantity of water that can cause disasters, but rather the quality of the water as it is contaminated by agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock waste. In efforts to address such pollution issues, the Swiss have made strides toward bettering their water policies. Water policy is discussed by the Federal government and further specified within the distinct cantons. While the government oversees protection of Swiss water, the individual laws and policies specific to each canton is up to jurisdiction of the voters and local authorities within the individual communities. Within this multi-level democracy, “sovereignty over (public) waters is assigned to the cantons” (Mauch 6). Public water in Switzerland refers to all surface water including lakes, rivers, and glaciers. All Swiss citizens have the right to some free use of public surface water. According to Swiss Civil Code, however, the state possesses the authority to interfere with canton water policy under the premise that all flowing waters are termed as common property. Underground water sources are generally considered private to the owner of the land that the water source resides on, but limitations are in place to protect the downstream neighbor and the general public in the community. Expert academics on the history and current condition of Swiss water policy, Corine Mauch and Emmanuel Reynard, discuss the how water is managed and controlled in Switzerland.
“In general, the cantons or local authorities are responsible for water management and very few of them reflect the boundaries of regional or local water catchment areas. Hence, the criteria for the definition of management units are actually based on political-administrative structures as opposed to natural boundaries of water basins” (Mauch 2).
This approach to water management according to political boundaries rather than physical water catchment areas can cause friction between the cantons. Furthermore, it can more seriously cause conflict between countries that share the water within transboundary bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes.
Regardless of one’s specific canton of residence, all Swiss have a legal responsibility rooted in their constitution to take care of their water supply. The 24quarter article added to the Federal Constitution in 1953 called for the protection of water bodies “irrespective of their property status, private or public” (Mauch 10). The most pressing water problem in Switzerland currently is the non-point source pollution of both groundwater and surface water as a result of extensive farming practices. Farming is a major element of Swiss tradition. The Swiss are known for their incredible self-sufficiency in food production, especially during World Wars when all Swiss citizens were fed only on locally grown food. According to a national Swiss report, “there are about 63,500 farms in Switzerland cultivating an area of some 10,300 km2, which covers around a quarter of the total country area” (Binggeli 7). Provided that 25% of Switzerland’s area is dedicated to farming, it makes sense that it would have a massive impact on, the Swiss economy, the environment, and of course water management. In fact, on a global scale agriculture and farming take up the largest percentage of freshwater usage. While flowing waters in Switzerland are considered common property to the public, many privately owned farms make up the major cause of water pollution. In order to conserve the integrity of public water, private farmers must have an incentive to alter their farming practices to avoid nitrate pollution. It is not uncommon or unhealthy to find a small percentage of nitrate in drinking water. Minimal milligrams of nitrate to the liter are safe to drink. However in 2007, “over 15 % of Swiss water monitoring stations surveyed showed concentration levels of between 25 and 40 mg/l” (Perritaz 81). Some efforts have been made to accomplish private preservation of public water through government funding. According to the 2007 Environmental Report from the FOEN, “direct payments of grants to impose ecological measures in agriculture were introduced in 1993, with a view to improving the situation” (Perritaz 84). This motion was helpful in decreasing non-point source pollution to a degree, but it was not as effective as originally intended. National Swiss reports admit that “the ecological direct payments system has to be better targeted on the effective ecological services achieved” and the contamination of “pesticides, phosphorous, and nitrogen, needs to be reduced” (Binggeli 8). Scholars, Mark Shepheard and Roland Norer, discuss providing a “framework to increase personal responsibility for sustainable water management, while simultaneously incorporating all relevant interests and addressing conflicts between them” (Shepheard). The most common point of conflict arises between environmentally conscious government officials and farmers. As Switzerland strives to be a leader in ecological preservation, conflicts become more frequent. Shepheard and Norer suggest that by emphasizing the value of “stewardship”, farmers will expectantly have a more personalized incentive to take responsibility in maintaining the Swiss ecosystem. This sense of stewardship will feed a concern for fairer farmer rights and conservation of restricted resources for future generations. Shepheard and Norer argue that this will “help to limit exploitative freedom, form norms of conservation practice and protect the legitimacy and social trust of farming in return for environmentally benign practices” (Shepheard). The EU has also voiced concern for the state of European water pollution because a large portion of European freshwater comes from the Swiss Alps. Both the Rhine and the Rhone Rivers begin from the Alps and flow through neighboring European countries. These transboundary rivers also contribute to the water flow of other main rivers, such as the Po, Danube and Etsch. Given the shared water supply, the EU is currently pushing for directives to reduce nitrate pollution and preserve drinking water quality. The Commission of European Communities through the EU warns against the potential health risks involved with high percentages of nitrate in drinking water. Consumed “nitrate reacts with compounds in the stomach to form products which have been found to be carcinogenic” (The Implementation of Council Directive). Under the principle of fining polluters for damages, the EU has been successful in decreasing the amount of pollution across participant states and political boundaries. According the EU Water Framework Directive, “the best model for a single system of water management is management by river basin – the natural geographical and hydrological unit – instead of according to administrative or political boundaries” (Introduction to…) Though Switzerland is not a part of the EU, it certainly could benefit by referencing EU directives when establishing standard water policy, especially with regard to drawing management lines. By agreeing to the EU directives, Switzerland would maintain the expectations set by the rest of Europe. While overarching standards could be helpful in communication between countries, it could also potentially cause incongruent policies between different environments and cultures. For example, the use of pesticides in agriculture may vary between countries and therefore the water restrictions may not be equally valid across the entire EU.
In the cultivation of improved water policy in Switzerland, it is important to take into consideration the values and obligations of the stakeholders involved in freshwater pollution due to farming practices. Because private farming is often a family profession traditionally passed down over many generations, it is not uncommon to discover cultural and familial pride associated with the work. The agricultural business is unlike most jobs in that it is not only a method of income, but also it is a farmer’s livelihood. This personal connection to the work has driven Swiss farmers to fight for their rights and privileges. Today, feeding a family on private family farming alone is extremely difficult. The Swiss Farmers’ Union (SFA) strives to protect Swiss farms, supporting political actions that will ensure livable wages for farmers, fairer priced goods, increased education for farming families, and the continuation of the family-owned private farm. Considering the common Swiss mentality of self-sufficiency and pride in one’s work and history, the presence of the farmers union in policy making is important. While the Swiss highly value traditional farming practices, perhaps some would be willing to look into more efficient and eco-friendly farming practices. After all, Switzerland is one of the most innovative countries when it comes to “green” initiatives. For example, it is a leading country in alternative energies such as hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. The value in taking care of the nature is evident through the work of the Federal Office for the Environment of the Swiss Federal Council. “The Green Economy Action Plan was approved by the Federal Council in early 2013. The plan contains several measures relating to consumption and production, waste, and raw materials” (Environment Report 2013). In the near future, Switzerland aims to better utilize minimal resources, such as freshwater, while also maintaining production needed for economic and societal functionality. Some conservative politicians and voters, however, may take an anti-ecological approach fearing stricter regulations and consequently higher taxes.
While some Swiss may worry that additional regulations will hurt the economy, many Swiss actually benefit from jobs involved in environmental protection. Currently, “there are about 8,000 jobs related to the protection of the environment” (Switzerland Environmental Policies). Provided that the Swiss are incredibly inventive and environmentally conscious, perhaps a more efficient and “green” method of farming could be a beneficial reality for the future of agriculture in Switzerland. The new alternative of vertical farming through technological advances may open a window for change in agriculture worldwide. Vertical farming is a new technique for growing crops indoors with minimal space and water as well as LED lights that mimic the sun. An article in the Huffington Post summarizes the basic concept. Leading expert Joseph Erbentraut says:
“Plants at most vertical farms are grown hydroponically, or without soil, nourished instead by the recycling of a nutrient-rich water solution. Some such farms rely on aeroponics, where the water solution is misted onto the plants’ roots. The farms are typically several stories tall, allowing for crops to be stacked in an enclosed space.” (Erbentraut).
Vertical farms would allow crops to be grown year round with significantly less water and consequently diminished pollution. The Association for Vertical Farming states that while traditional farming takes up a large percentage of our world’s freshwater supply and surface area, “vertical farming can produce a large quantity of quality crops using up to 98% less water compared to open field agriculture” (AVF). No pesticides are needed for vertical farms because they are cultivated indoors and therefore are safe from pests present in the outside environment. The use of vertical farming would solve Switzerland’s water problem of pesticide pollution. By moving in the direction of vertical farming, the Swiss could restore damaged water and ecosystems influenced by the current water infrastructure for farmland irrigation and drainage. In addition, by reducing the amount of Swiss land used for farming, there would be an increase of availability for urbanization, nature preserves, and parks. Academic from Columbia University, Renee Cho, states that, “a vertically farmed acre can produce the equivalent of 4 to 6 soil-based acres, depending on the crop” (Cho). Therefore, vertical farming would provide an incredible amount of saved space for Switzerland, and as mentioned prior, Switzerland is a small country that could use a more efficient use of land for the future. Furthermore, according to the UN, the world’s population is projected to increase to 9.1 billion by 2050, which would increase food production by 70%” (Vertical Farming). With this in mind, it is important that traditional farming countries, Switzerland included, rethink their use of limited space and resources. Vertical farming is a great option because the limiting resource of freshwater would be used in a controlled environment and treated in a drainage system independent of flowing public water. There would be no threat of run-off pollution and crops would be safe from limitations caused by outside weather.
Though vertical farms are projected to be a good option for crop production and environmental regeneration, like most “green” alternatives, it will not be cheap in the beginning stages of installation and research. According to vertical farm researchers at Columbia University, the “total building cost for one vertical farming building is estimated to be around $83.7 million” (Ellis). While this is a huge investment to make, the return on that investment in the form of produce production is anticipated to make up the difference in a timely manner. Crops in vertical farms would be growing year round instead of just during the traditional harvest months and the production would be 4 to 6 times that of a soil-based plot of land. As a result, the output of produce overall would be much greater. Building and maintaining vertical farming houses in Switzerland would need to be funded by the federal government. The attached appendix breaks down the estimated annual capital cost of one vertical farm building with a 5% interest over a forty-year payment plan to be $4,813,952. With an additional $790,920 for maintenance costs, the total annual price of building a vertical farm building comes out to be roughly $5,604,872. Though this is a lot of money to put down, the FOEN prioritizes the use of federal funding for increased green education and innovative research to increase overall sustainability. According to the 2008-2011 Green Action Plan, “the Federal Council has applied to the Swiss parliament to increase the budget for this area by an average of 6% per year between 2008 and 2011” (Sustainable Development Strategy). In order to implement widespread vertical farming in Switzerland, the Federal government would need to provide significant economic incentive not only for the assembly and maintenance of vertical farms, but also for traditional farmers who may encounter financial trouble. Realistically, the backlash from Swiss farmers would likely be strong enough to reduce the commonality of vertical farms. Farmer union and lobbyist groups pride themselves on the importance of traditional farming to Swiss culture and livelihood. While some farmers may be in favor of gradual implementation of vertical farms to help the environment, many would want price protection measures for traditional crops against vertical farming crops within a market economy. In order to keep traditional farmers happy while also experimenting with new innovative farming practices, the FOEN could support the construction of vertical farm buildings only in farming co-op communities that are lacking in production and causing substantial water pollution. The co-op would include the vertical farm and therefore would attract food brokers to benefit the market for the crops. As a result, all the community members would reap benefits of the shared vertical farming facility. In this way, the Swiss water pollution from agriculture could be better controlled while also gradually introducing vertical farms and maintaining a good relationship with traditional farmers. Additionally, vertical farm buildings would create environmentally friendly jobs for engineers, innovators, and researchers. Such job creation would boost the already strong Swiss economy. All positives of vertical farming considered, there are still potential issues that could arise. For example, if the vertical farm crops become more favorable to consumers because of their organic nature, the partnership with traditional crop farmers could be strained. As Swiss citizens lean towards “green” products, the traditionally grown crops will suffer in the free market economy. Additionally, should the new technologies of vertical farms fail or turn out to be more expensive than anticipated, the federal government may not want to risk taxpayer money to fund further vertical farm projects deemed unpredictable. Also, considering the concentrated space of vertical farming facilities, massive food supply could be vulnerable should a farm building be destroyed.
While Switzerland is considered one of the world’s wealthiest countries in natural beauty, resources, GDP, and innovation, it still has some issues to work out with regard to water conservation and relative policies. Freshwater pollution from agricultural pesticides is the main issue of concern for Switzerland, a country with high levels of precipitation. As a result of inevitable run-off water, the Swiss need to be more careful about farming practices that put water in danger. A potential way to decrease the pollution is to change the traditional approach to farming as a whole. Integrating the option for innovative farming structure, through indoor vertical farms could be a solution for Switzerland’s water pollution problem. Though this idea may have potential cultural and economic risks involved, a slow transition of vertical farming could in fact boost Swiss economy, food self-sufficiency, and pride in ecological water conservation.
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Emily Ott is a third year honors student at St. Edward’s University. An Acting Major with a passion for writing and storytelling, Emily spends most of her time in the library, in her favorite local coffee shop, or in the theater. She enjoys being challenged academically and creatively and embraces projects that allow her to research and to think critically. Throughout the duration of her undergraduate degree, Emily hopes to write more research papers as well as creative pieces that she can be proud of. Her goal is to put together a strong portfolio of pieces she can reference in future job interviews. Post-graduation, she would like to utilize her writing skills for a job in journalism, which she plans to pursue alongside her acting career.