Evolution

      Farmland

      Powerful machinery cultivates large areas in short periods of time, making the land unavailable as a breeding site. © Markus Jenny

      Compared to our neighbouring countries, agriculture in Switzerland is largely dominated by small family farms. However, farming is generally very intensive. The process of intensification is increasingly spreading to mountain regions, too. Despite the introduction of biodiversity promotion areas in the 1990s, the decline in biological diversity has not been stopped.

      Farmland covers 36 % of the territory of Switzerland. Regions in which more than half the surface area is used for agriculture are located on the Central Plateau, in the southern Jura and in the Pre-Alps of eastern Switzerland. The proportion of agricultural land is low in Ticino, Valle Mesolcina GR and parts of Valais. Each of the following land uses account for about a third of Swiss farmland: arable crops (30.9 %), permanent grassland (34.4 %) and Alpine agricultural areas (summering pastures, 34.7 %).

      Agricultural land is divided into different zones depending on climate conditions, accessibility and surface structure. The plain region is most suitable for agriculture and accounts for 47 % of farmland (areas used year-round, not including summering pastures, total of 1049 km2); the hill region accounts for 25 %, and the rest is divided into mountain regions I to IV. The area of farmland has decreased by about 23.4 km2 since 2000. In the valley bottoms, cultivated land is contracting twice as fast as in the colline and mountain zones, giving way mainly to building development (settlements, industrial plants, roads). In the mountain regions, the reduction in grassland is predominantly a result of forest encroachment on marginal, labour-intensive land.

      Arable fields and Alpine pastures each account for 35 % of lost farmland, followed by orchards, vineyards and horticultural land (27 %). Proportionately, orchards suffered the greatest loss of area. Not surprisingly therefore, it is this type of land use that is most affected by the loss of farmland in the typical fruit-growing regions of Switzerland (Lower Valais, northern Jura, Central Plateau between the Napf region and Lake Zurich, Thurgau).

      Main forms of agricultural land use in Switzerland according to the Land Use Statistics 2004–2009. The graph shows the most common form of land use in the categories arable land, grassland used year-round, special crops (orchards, vineyards, horticulture) and Alpine pastures only grazed in summer.

      © Arealstatistik – Bundesamt für Statistik (BFS) & Amt für Bau und Infrastruktur Liechtenstein.

      Small mixed farms

      Swiss farms tend to be quite small compared to those in neighbouring countries. On average, a typical family farm manages about 20 ha of land (2016). The number of farms has decreased by about one fourth since 2000, a decline that is much greater than the loss of area. The smallest farms are most affected by structural change.

      Most farms are mixed operations with both crop and animal production. Crops dominate in the western part of the Central Plateau with a large share of cereals in crop rotations. In the eastern part of the Plateau, livestock is more important and as a result, the proportion of improved grassland and maize is larger. In fruit-growing regions, orchards shape much of the landscape. However, traditional orchards with standard trees are increasingly being replaced by intensively managed orchards with dwarf-tree varieties. The number of traditional orchards registered as biodiversity promotion areas fell by 11 % between 2000 and 2016, while the total area of orchards increased by 30 %. Locations with a mild climate are used locally for viticulture (about 157 km2 in total). At 52 km2 each, the largest areas of vineyards are in Valais and the Lake Geneva area, followed by Ticino (14 km2) and the region around Lakes Biel, Neuchâtel and Murten (10 km2). Vineyards covering more than 1 km2 are also found in the cantons of Zurich, Schaffhausen, Grisons, Aargau, St. Gallen, Thurgau and Basel-Landschaft. In the past few decades it has become standard procedure to allow ground vegetation to grow between the rows of vines. This practice significantly increases the food supply for birds. However, only about 20 % of vineyards in the Valais have ground vegetation due to the dry climate.

      Key figures in agriculture in 2000 and 2016.

      © Source: BLW (2017)

      Intensive agriculture

      Farming is generally very intensive, involving large and powerful machinery. Modern harvesting and forage-conservation techniques (baled silage) resulted in the further rationalisation of intensive grassland management as many as 20 years ago. Today, mowing is faster and takes place at a larger scale. In 1990, a tractor was able to mow two hectares in one hour; when front mowers were introduced, that area increased to five hectares. Five to six cuts from March to November are common practice in the lowlands.

      A much larger amount of feed concentrates are used in meat and milk production today. The import of feed concentrates has more than doubled since 1990, totalling about one million tons in 2015. The area of land used abroad to produce these feed concentrates (mainly cereals and soy) amounts to about three quarters of the total arable land in Switzerland. One consequence of the import of feed concentrates is that the manure produced on many farms exceeds the maximum amount these farms can use, and is therefore transported over long distances to other farms. High livestock numbers also lead to high nitrogen emissions (especially ammonia) – emissions are produced by the animals, but also during the storage and application of manure. In consequence, the nitrogen emissions in areas with lots of livestock are very high. In 2005, agriculture was responsible for about 65 % of nitrogen emissions into the atmosphere. These nutrients are deposited back onto land as immissions from the air. In many areas, the depositions exceed the so-called critical loads considered acceptable for semi-natural ecosystems.

      New types of land use at the expense of agricultural land in 1985–2009: the graph shows the land use with the greatest increase per square of 1 × 1 km and includes all squares where agricultural land decreased by at least one hectare.

      © Arealstatistik – Bundesamt für Statistik (BFS) & Amt für Bau und Infrastruktur Liechtenstein.

      Change in the area of traditional orchards. The decline has slowed somewhat in recent years. The numbers apply to western Switzerland, for which the data from the latest land-use statistics are already available.

      © Bundesamt für Statistik (BFS).

      Heavy use of pesticides and increasing indoor production systems

      The volume of pesticides applied in Switzerland has remained fairly constant since 1990 and amounts to about 2200 t per year. However, there has been a shift towards more toxic substances (by a factor of 1000 or more) which in fact have a much greater impact even in substantially smaller doses; therefore, the intensity of pesticide treatment and with it the burden on the environment is expected to increase.

      In recent years, a trend towards indoor production has become apparent. Poultry fattening units and greenhouses for vegetable production are steadily increasing and take up large areas of farmland. Temporary greenhouses and especially fields of early potatoes, vegetables, berries and other crops covered with plastic sheeting already take up the largest part of agricultural land in some areas. The number of bird species and individuals decreases as the area of covered fields expands. Unlike in some of our neighbouring countries, there is no political support in Switzerland for the cultivation of energy crops (renewable resources) because it would compete with food production.

      The decline of dry meadows is dramatic, as is the loss of flower-rich low-intensity meadows that were traditionally only fertilised with manure. On the Central Plateau, these meadows dwindled to 2–5 % of their original area due to intensified land use, and dry meadows and pastures lost about 95 % of their area between 1900 and 2010. In the past 20 years, the remaining area has further contracted by one fifth.

      While the intensification of agriculture began early in the lowlands, the process of intensification and rationalisation picked up speed at mid-elevation (about 800–1400 m) in the 1990s. At the time, species-rich areas managed in site-appropriate ways were still quite widespread. Today, these sites are now also dominated by a small number of forage grasses and herbs like dandelion that thrive on nutrient-rich soils. Grassland vegetation at higher altitudes has gradually come to resemble the uniform green of the lowlands. While in 1950, 95 % of mountain meadows were species-rich Alpine wildflower meadows, that figure is now down to 2 %. In the Engadine GR, the area of intensively managed pastures tripled between 1988 and 2010; fertile meadows increased by 15 %. These changes have been at the expense of species-rich dry meadows, which have shrunk by 55 %. Unproductive meadows on marginal land have been abandoned, allowing the forest to spread. The process has been accelerated by measures for «structural improvement»: the relocation of farms outside of villages, the widening of roads to improve accessibility to remote areas, irrigation systems in dry regions, land consolidation and other measures receive federal and cantonal subsidies and generally provide a boost to intensification.

      Average nitrogen deposition per ha and year in 2010. Agriculture is responsible for about 65 % of total nitrogen emissions into the atmosphere. These nutrients are deposited back onto land as immissions from the air.

      © Bundesamt für Umwelt (BAFU) & Meteotest AG

      In recent years, pesticides are again being applied as a preventive measure; the substances used are becoming stronger and affect large areas.

      © Markus Jenny

      Pesticides are extremely damaging to the environment. The map shows the number of different pesticides in watercourses recorded in excess of 0.1 μg/l (565 sites with measurements from 2005 to 2012).

      © Munz et al. (2012).

      Biodiversity is kept out of large areas through the use of film, plastic or netting.

      © Chiara Scandolara

      Agricultural policy

      One of the objectives set out in the Swiss constitution (Art. 104) is to ensure that agriculture in Switzerland is not only competitive, but also sustainable and respectful of nature, the environment and animals. In the past three decades, the agricultural policy framework and instruments needed to achieve these goals have been developed step by step in several reform processes. With the «proof of ecological performance» (PEP) that farmers need to provide in order to receive direct payments, a system is in place that has great potential for nature conservation and environmental protection. For example, as part of PEP, at least 7 % of agricultural land must be managed in the form of biodiversity promotion areas. These biodiversity promotion areas provide a valuable foundation for the implementation of conservation projects in farmland. Federal funding is an extremely important policy instrument in the Swiss agricultural sector. Every year, about four billion francs are allocated to agriculture; of these, 2.8 billion are paid directly to the farmers (direct payments). Subsidies for the promotion of biodiversity, introduced in the 1990s, currently account for 14.2 % of all direct payments. The aim of these measures is to preserve and enhance species diversity in farmland.

      However, none of the «Environmental Objectives in Agriculture» defined in 2008 have been achieved so far. The objectives have not been attained, or only partially, because many financial incentives exist that oppose the promotion of biodiversity, and because several of the measures are not effective enough. Also, some measures have not been well implemented. In particular, there are several negative examples of habitat connectivity projects, which are supposed to be oriented towards the needs of target species. But too often, the wrong measures are implemented, or they are carried out in the wrong place. For example, Whinchats near Intyamon FR breed in the valley bottom, while conservation measures were put in place on the slopes.

      hange in biodiversity promotion areas in Switzerland (in ha). Larger subsidies have been paid for biodiversity promotion areas at quality level II (QII) since 2002. These areas need to reach a defined level of biological quality, i.e. contain certain indicator plants or certain habitat structures.

      © Rey et al. (2017b)

      Bio Suisse and IP-Suisse

      A wide public is becoming increasingly aware of the negative effects of intensive agricultural production on biodiversity, soil, air, water and human health. Consumers influence production methods by the purchases they make, and therefore constitute an economic factor. Bio Suisse (federation of 32 organic-farming organisations, 13 % of agricultural land) and IP-Suisse (association of farmers using integrated methods of production, about a quarter of total agricultural land) are two large producer organisations whose guidelines contain advanced measures to promote biodiversity. The majority of organic farms are found in mountain regions.

      Since 2009, IP-Suisse has required its approximately 9000 producers to achieve a minimum score in its «point system for biodiversity». Most IP-Suisse farms had to make considerable improvements in their efforts to enhance biodiversity to achieve the required score. Despite some initial scepticism among members, the approach significantly increased the number of biodiversity promotion areas. Within four years, the proportion of valuable habitats such as species-rich meadows, hedges and wildflower strips increased from 60 to 99 km2, or by 65 %. Moreover, an assessment of 133 farms showed that a farm's efforts in terms of biodiversity are well represented by the point system and that an environment-friendly approach is also profitable for farmers.

      Bio Suisse has compiled a catalogue of biodiversity measures and requires its approximately 6200 producers to implement a minimum number of them. The catalogue contains similar measures to those included in the biodiversity point system.

      Since the 1990s, farmers have been required to designate biodiversity promotion areas. The image shows a particularly good example, where a farmer has created new groups of bushes, various fringes, and low-intensity meadows as well as planting standard fruit trees.

      © Markus Jenny

      Future prospects

      Despite various measures, biodiversity in farmland is decreasing, especially among breeding birds. This is due to the fact that agricultural intensification continues to progress and has now also reached mountain regions, but also to the insufficient implementation of agri-environmental measures.

      A new agricultural policy will take effect in 2022 and will have the task of addressing the current deficiencies. Solutions must not be limited to improving biodiversity measures, but must also target the reduction of emissions from agriculture (nutrients, pesticides). Agricultural production needs to be brought into better alignment with a site's potential and with the sustainability limits of ecosystems. Milk and meat production needs to rely largely on feed produced on site (reduction of nitrogen input), and crops must be farmed in a resource-efficient way (fewer pesticides, biodiversity-friendly production methods). For ground-breeders like Eurasian Skylark and Whinchat, which like to nest in the fields, resource-efficient production systems for both arable land and grassland need to be developed. For example, cereal farmers are currently experimenting with widely spaced crop rows, and maize farmers with undersown crops. In both cases there is justified hope that this will have a positive impact on Eurasian Skylarks, brown hares and other species. Incentives for a marked reduction in pesticides must be introduced, on arable land in particular, but also in orchards, vegetable farms and vineyards. Last but not least, compliance with the regulations already in place must be guaranteed.

      There is also a lack of ecological training and advisory services for farmers. A better system of learning opportunities and support regarding the topics of biodiversity and sustainability needs to be put in place. Experience has shown that farmers can dramatically improve their environmental efforts when they are supported by advisers.

      Near-natural production has also become a selling point in recent years. Several labels have been introduced for foods produced in a sustainable manner, a trend that is expected to gain even more momentum in the future. It is important that farmers are fairly remunerated for their additional efforts and services. The economic sector and consumers are in a position to encourage this development in the future.

      Ecological consultations often result in improved efforts to promote biodiversity and change farmers' attitudes towards ecological issues. Moreover, farmers have the chance to improve their income by providing biodiversity services.

      © Markus Jenny

      Text: Simon Birrer

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