In 2020, around 60 percent of Switzerland’s arable land was used to grow animal feed, while grain legumes – i.e. pulses such as peas, soya or field beans – accounted for only 2.3 percent. Legumes can feed more people per hectare, they are healthier, require less water and space than livestock farming and do not cause any methane problems. To compare: during Wahlen’s lifetime, the Swiss ate 30kg of meat per person per year; today, it’s around 50kg.2 If we ate less meat, livestock numbers would fall. As a result of this reduction, Switzerland could avoid having to import feed, or it could increase its self-sufficiency since more space would be available for growing food for human consumption.
More legumes, less CO2 emissions
A brief aside on greenhouse gas emissions: imports of soya from regions with laxer environmental regulations cause ecological problems, including deforestation and high levels of CO2 emissions. In addition, 85 percent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in Switzerland are attributable to livestock farming. This corresponds to around 14 percent of the country’s total emissions. Legumes are clearly the better choice.
Legumes are also good for the soil. They take nitrogen from the air and release it into the earth, which has a positive effect on crop rotation and reduces the need for nitrogen fertilisation. This is of particular interest as excess nitrogen is a problem for Switzerland. In fact, the country needs to cut nitrogen levels by 20 percent between now and 2030. Less animal production would also mean less manure and, in turn, a smaller nitrogen surplus.
Making the transition easy
In view of these clear advantages, the question arises: Why has agriculture held off for so long on increasing its cultivation of legumes? I believe one reason is that Swiss farmers who grow legumes for direct human consumption didn’t start receiving direct payments until January 2023. Furthermore, it remains financially more lucrative to produce meat thanks to something called the “refinement of protein.” Farmers feed cheap grain they grow themselves to their livestock. They then market the meat at a high price. Even if farmers want to move away from this system, they are often carrying heavy debt on their livestock stables and so cannot get out quickly on their own.