In the past, Switzerland has supported agriculture by:

  • subsidizing agricultural products;

  • guaranteeing prices and orders for such products;

  • implementing protective import duties;

  • temporarily freezing imports where necessary; and

  • granting export subventions on agricultural products.

However, the Convention on Agriculture(1) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade Regulations established by the World Trade Organization(2) changed the legal landscape and required that new parameters be established. Existing forms of protection became prohibited and the number of agricultural farms and enterprises in Switzerland fell dramatically as a result.

Gradually, new forms of support for agricultural undertakings were envisaged which not only had to satisfy farmers, but also had to take account of the concerns of environmentalists. Support is now guaranteed at the highest level in Article 104 of the Swiss Constitution. According to the Constitution, the Swiss Confederation has a threefold task. It must take significant action to ensure:

  • the security of agricultural supply for the population;

  • the conservation of natural resources and rural landscape; and

  • the decentralized population of the country.

Both the requirements for continuous development and prevailing market conditions must be taken into account when establishing measures that will encourage agriculture to thrive. To this end, Switzerland supports farmers by topping up their revenues with direct payments. However, these payments are subject to strict conditions: each farmer must prove that ecologically sound activities are undertaken on his land.

At present, agricultural activities which provide the services that consumers expect while at the same time complying with environmental requirements cannot be financed by the revenue from agricultural production alone. Without the direct payments from the government, agriculture would focus on intensive production at the most favourable locations. This would be detrimental for the environment and for water resources. Therefore, Switzerland has introduced supporting measures that encourage all production forms which are environment and animal-friendly.

The Swiss Confederation's constitutional duties further extend to issuing labelling requirements for food products. It must also protect the environment from excessive chemicals, fertilizers and similar products. These constitutional principles have been implemented by a continuous revision of the legal provisions regulating agriculture.

Today, Switzerland's agricultural legislation is remarkably advanced when compared to that of other European countries or the United States. The revised Statute on Agriculture(3) and the Regulations on Direct Payments(4) have set out guidelines on environmentally protective measures, taking into account the agricultural context and its particularities. Additional provisions have been issued in the Regulations on Biological Agriculture and in the Regulations on Ecological Qualities.(5) No specific instruments for controlling compliance are in place, since implementation of the law is largely dependent on farmers' willingness to comply. However, significant economic pressure is exerted on farmers to ensure their cooperation.

The objectives of the agricultural regulations are long-term, and the protective measures aim to remedy problems in several fields. For example, standardization is set to become more common, especially with the advent of gene technology. In addition, the high degree of mechanization causes the land to compact in some regions, while in others over-fertilization is still in evidence. All these factors are detrimental to biological diversity.

Another specific concern relates to the emissions that result from agricultural activities. Agricultural activities produce both odorous and non-odorous emissions. Both can contribute to environmental pollution. In the past, attention has focused primarily on odours.(6) For example, when constructing new installations, animal holdings must comply with the minimum emissions requirements. The two-step approach which prevents other forms of nuisances is also applicable to agriculture.(7) Thus, as a first step, emissions must be limited preventively to the extent permitted by the technique used and the conditions in which it is employed, and to the extent that this is economically reasonable. As a second step, nuisances are limited more strictly where their impact is expected to be significantly harmful or detrimental. Emission levels have been set for both farming installations and harmful substances. However, their application is especially difficult in the agricultural context, because agricultural emissions are diffuse. Practically, emissions levels can only be applied at the place and time that the emissions are made and recorded. Ammonia is one harmful substance from agricultural emissions which has been the subject of debate recently. Critical loads and critical levels have thus been set in this respect. Depending on the area and the environmental system in place, however, these levels are often still exceeded by a long way. As a result, the implementation of stricter measures cannot be ruled out.

At present, the public authorities are not inclined to grant additional funding to agriculture. However, ecological activities will continue to be remunerated on a cost basis. Therefore, agriculturalists and environmentalists must put aside their differences, as long-lasting and realistic development will continue to necessitate constructive political discussion between agricultural and environmental spheres of influence.

For further information on this topic please contact Max Walter or Andrea W├╝rzner at Pestalozzi Lachenal Patry by telephone (+41 1 217 91 11) or by fax (+41 1 217 92 17) or by email ([email protected] or [email protected]).


(1) Convention on Agriculture, Annex 1 A.3 to the Convention of April 15 1994 establishing the World Trade Organization.

(2) Convention of April 15 1994 establishing the World Trade Organization.

(3) Statute on Agriculture of April 29 1998, in force as of January 1 1999.

(4) Regulation on Direct Payment of December 7 1998, in force as of January 1 1999.

(5) Regulation on Biological Agriculture of September 22 1997 and Regulation on Ecological Quality of April 4 2001, in force as of May 1 2001

(6) Regulations on Air Protection, Annexes 1-4.

(7) Statute on Protection of the Environment of October 7 1983; BGE 126 II 43.