Updating the self-sufficiency ratio

The level of self-sufficiency indicates the extent to which agricultural performance ensures food security. But it’s not geared to the challenges that confront agriculture today, says Roman Hüppi.
Due to its high energy content, sugar beet plays an (overly) important role in Swiss agricultural self-​sufficiency. (Image: iStock / Victority)

The two initiatives calling for a ruling on synthetic pesticides have been rejected at the ballot box. This hasn’t resolved the environmental problems, and the agricultural reform suspended in spring isn’t off the table either: the Federal Council is set on making agriculture more ecological. The debate on a more environmentally friendly agricultural policy continues; let’s make sure the quality improves.

A key topic in earlier discussions was the level of self-sufficiency – a measure of the extent to which Switzerland can meet its food needs from its own domestic production. A feared decline in the level of self-sufficiency is the argument most often marshaled against more sustainable farming practices. And it’s an argument that carries weight, because achieving food security has always been a priority for Switzerland. But in my view, the classic self-sufficiency ratio is a questionable reference for the current crises: it’s not very useful in the context of climate change, species extinction and nutrition-related widespread diseases. So, for the upcoming debate, I propose to adapt this valuable indicator of agriculture to today’s challenges.

Tuned to calorie production

According to the Federal Agriculture Office, Switzerland’s gross self-sufficiency ratio over the last few years was around 60 percent.1 If we consider that about a quarter of animal production is based on imported feed (1.4 million tons annually), the net figure then drops to 50 percent. The remaining 50 percent is accounted for by imported foodstuffs. We’re almost completely self-sufficient in animal foodstuffs (dairy products 115 percent, meat 80 percent), yet for plant-based foods, Switzerland manages only about 40 percent self-sufficiency.

The above calculation is made in in terms of energy supply. The indicator was developed during the hardship of the world wars and is one-dimensionally tuned to calorie production. From a supply perspective, it makes sense to produce as much food as possible domestically. To date, any intensification of agriculture can be justified as increasing the level of self-sufficiency.

«Food security is about far more than just calories – it hinges on an intact natural environment and fertile land.»      Roman Hüppi

But this rationale no longer holds. Maximum self-sufficiency is not always desirable – for the more intensive production becomes, the greater the environmental damage. And when biodiversity dwindles and soils erode, the very core of our food supply is threatened. Food security is about far more than just calories – it hinges on an intact natural environment and fertile land.

According to analyses made by Vision Agriculture, it’s not the calories produced in normal times that are crucial for a secure supply in crises, but the natural production potential and the ability to adapt the agricultural enterprise quickly when needed.2

Self-sufficiency – based on imported energy

A high self-sufficiency ratio does not, therefore, guarantee food security, and partly because this indicator ignores the inputs required for the food produced.

To achieve high levels of supply, farmers use many means of production. They draw on direct energy in the form of fuel, combustible, and electricity, and a larger quantity of indirect or “grey” energy which is stored in the final products – animal feed, and seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, tools, machines and barns. According to estimates, our agriculture requires some two to three times as much external energy as it produces in the form of food.3 Most of this external energy we import, yet the self-sufficiency ratio is based on the means of production being available even in times of crisis.

In my view, in order to evaluate security of supply, an indicator would need to consider the energy balance of domestic production, and negatively account for energy imports. So far, however, methods to meaningfully integrate such dependencies into the food balance are lacking.

This type of approach would also address the climate crisis. Heat, droughts and heavy precipitation already threaten agriculture in many places. As long as imported energy comes from fossil sources and animal feed is grown on cleared virgin forest, our imports will spur climate change and jeopardise domestic yields.

Man is not fed by calories alone

From a health perspective too, the classic self-sufficiency ratio makes little sense. Here, low-energy but nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables and fruits carry little weight, while sugar production scores high due to its high energy content, even though sugar is harmful in the quantities consumed today. We eat unhealthy amounts of meat and dairy products too, but Switzerland itself produces only a small proportion of healthy vegetables, fruits and nuts. So, instead of measuring the self-sufficiency ratio according to current consumption, we could gear it to a balanced diet. In any case, a shift from animal-based to plant-based foods would also boost actual self-sufficiency.

What kind of agriculture do we want?

It’s clear to me that the agriculture of tomorrow must be sustainable and fulfill several functions: reliably supply people with healthy food, protect the climate and the cultivated land, and preserve biodiversity.

We now need to rethink the self-sufficiency ratio and tune it for multifunctional agriculture. This would make it a valuable indicator for today’s crises and could even help unite productive and ecological interests in our agricultural policy.

About the author

Roman Hüppi
Postdoctoral researcher in the Sustainable Agroecosystems Group, ETH Zurich