We think of Switzerland as a land of millionaires and watch makers, but actually the country’s largest economic sector is agriculture—and much of that agricultural production comes from small farms, which are protected by tariffs and supported with subsidies. Switzerland produces about 60 percent of the food consumed in the country and close to 100 percent of the potatoes, beef and dairy foods. A lot of vegetables and fruit (and Swiss wine) comes from tidy terraced vineyards, orchards and gardens. We were especially impressed with the sight of fruit trees in hedges (for easy picking) with convenient netting slung from trellises to keep out the birds.
Since 1998 Switzerland has required strict observance of good environmental practices of farms receiving subsidies. Before farmers can apply for subsidies, they must obtain certificates of environmental management systems proving that they “make a balanced use of fertilizers; use at least 7 percent of their farmland as ecological compensation areas; regularly rotate crops; adopt appropriate measures to protect animals and soil; make limited and targeted use of pesticides.” A large portion of farms engage in organic production and most beef and dairy cows are grazed on pasture. And Switzerland is largely GMO-free.
Nevertheless, hundreds of Swiss farms go out of business every year. Recently the price that dairy farmers receive for their milk dropped from one Swiss franc per liter (about four dollars per gallon) to forty-two cents. This is still more than American farmers receive, but not enough to sustain their business. Suicide among farmers has become common.
I visited Manor in Geneva—the equivalent of Whole Foods in the U.S. The food was definitely expensive, though not the kind of expensive that would make you faint. Placards in the meat sections advertised the fact that the chickens were raised out of doors (élevées en plein air), the cows grazed on pasture and the pork came from small family farms (porcs issus de petites exploitations familiales.) A large section featured charcuterie of every imaginable type, including various patés, terrines and foie gras—something you don’t see in an American Whole Foods—and an equally large section displayed cheese of every sort. I found bone broth in glass jars and decent kombucha. Sour dough bread was featured in a special display. The store had sauerkraut for sale, but I am not sure it was raw. Most gratifying was the beef section, where a roast with at least one-half inch of fat begged to be photographed:
Some lean cuts came wrapped in fat—reminding me of drawings in the old Joy of Cooking cookbooks:
The meat at the Co-op, the equivalent of Safeway or Giant, was much leaner—only a mere one-eighth inch of fat around the edges of the rib roast and no beautiful roasts wrapped in fat. From this I suppose you could conclude that millionaires are smart enough to know that beef is best when eaten with the fat. . . or maybe that eating fatty beef will make you smart enough to be a millionaire! The Co-op did display a poster of butter, calling it “good and natural (bon et naturel). You definitely do not see the huge displays of margarine and spreads in Switzerland.
Raw milk is difficult to find in Switzerland, but thanks to a WAPF supporter in Geneva, I did find some beautiful biodynamic Brown Swiss milk at a health food store, costing 3.25 Swiss Francs per liter (abut thirteen dollars per gallon). However, most of the milk in the supermarkets is ultrapasteurized.
I hear that in France raw milk is booming, with raw milk vending machines everywhere. It is sometimes even available in supermarkets, although you have to be careful because what might be called “raw” or “natural” is often micro-filtered, and milk labeled as “fresh milk” is simply pasteurized, not homogenized—so you have to be savvy about labels in Europe, just as here.
At one of the talks, Swiss dairy farmer Andre Muller described how he dealt with low dairy prices—by selling raw milk directly to consumers for one and one-half francs per liter (about six dollars a gallon), or two francs delivered. His milk sales weren’t making him rich, he explained, but they kept him from going out of business.
It’s safe to say that by and large, the Swiss eat better than Americans—enjoying plenty of cheese, eggs, butter, paté and charcuterie. But their diet certainly isn’t perfect. There’s lots of junk food for sale at Manor and the Co-op—cold breakfast cereals, white bread, pastries and sodas like Coca-Cola. The Swiss are also huge chocolate eaters—they have the second highest rate of chocolate consumption in the world, just after Germany. You see chocolate for sale everywhere; a uniformed ticket-taker on the Swiss trains was giving out chocolate eggs to the children, and parishioners were invited to take a chocolate egg at Easter services. The chocolate section at Manor was larger than the produce section! Dr. Weston Price pointed to chocolate as one of the “displacing foods of modern commerce” in his chapter on Switzerland. (More on chocolate in an upcoming blog.)
A big thank you to R. Ryan of Geneva, Switzerland, for his help with this article.