UN Goal: Clean Water Food Production in Tune with Clean Water

Led by Franziska Herren, the initiative runs through the streets on a protest march for clean drinking water.
Led by Franziska Herren, the initiative runs through the streets on a protest march for clean drinking water. | Photo (detail): Initiative für sauberes Trinkwasser

In a small country with mountains and spring water, like Switzerland, there shouldn't be a problem with the quality of drinking water – right? Franziska Herren founded the “Initiative für sauberes Trinkwasser” (Clean Drinking Water Initiative) and explains in an interview why this was necessary.

By Katja Wiesbrock Donovan, 1014

Ms. Herren, in Switzerland, a country people associate with fresh air and clean mountain water, do you find that action is needed so that people in your community can enjoy truly clean water?  

While Switzerland generally enjoys an abundance of fresh and clean water, the chemical outfall of an over-intensive farming system is increasingly creating problems. Currently, one million Swiss citizens out of an overall population of 8 million are being supplied with drinking water that does not meet water quality standards.  

Large animal stocks driven by huge feed imports are resulting in excessive disposal of manure. This leads to overfertilised, oxygen-depleted lakes causing groundwater pollution with nitrate, while record emissions of gaseous ammonia undermine biodiversity. Also, pesticide use is very high, leaving rivers and streams in arable regions loaded with a multitude of pesticides. Notably, groundwater, the source of 80% of drinking water, is polluted with pesticides.

Politics have failed for more than 20 years to provide a solution to these problems. It is now time for citizens to act.  

What does your initiative aim at? How do you rally support for the changes you request? What obstacles are you facing?  

Switzerland’s legal system grants unique rights to its citizens. Any voter can initiate a so-called popular initiative resulting in an amendment to the constitution. In a profoundly Swiss tradition, our “Initiative für sauberes Trinkwasser” does not demand banning non-ecological farming but rather calls for a fundamental reform of public subsidies towards practices in tune with clean water and a healthy environment. We ask that subsidies be restricted to farms applying pesticide-free practices, keeping livestock that can be fed from the farmland itself (without feed imports) and refrain from the prophylactic use of antibiotics. Moreover, all public finances for agricultural research and education shall be reserved for sustainable agro-ecological practices.

What started in 2015 with hardly the required seven votes to launch our initiative and without any funding, legal and scientific expertise, or support by political parties or non-governmental organizations slowly gained momentum so we were able to present the 100,000 signatures required to move on in 2018. What really turned things around was people realizing that while they bought organic produce, 3 billion Swiss francs (2.77 billion Euro) of their taxes were pumped into intensive and destructive farming practices each year. By now, our initiative has raised broad awareness of the water problem. We are confident that in 2021, Swiss citizens will adopt our call.  

Opposition from the powerful farming, pesticide, and meat lobbies is fierce. So, apart from rallying public support for our initiative by press and social media activities, we continuously expose and explain the role of food production in polluting our waters and diminishing biodiversity. We are gaining support from scientists and politicians, but also have to fend off attempts to discredit our initiative.

In an ideal world, what would you wish for in your community and beyond with regard to achieving the UN goal of “clean water and sanitation”?  

Producing food without polluting water is neither a new concept, nor is it difficult to achieve as thousands of farmers have demonstrated for decades. Yet, beyond refraining from the use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, modern agricultural practices as a whole need to become more in tune with natural processes again. This implies preserving soils, respecting animals, and making use of natural processes and cycles rather than fighting them. Switzerland has made remarkable progress in the past decades in preventing domestic and industrial pollution and is investing billions in restoring river ecology. Swiss agriculture, however, is stuck in a vicious cycle of intensification and technological fixes, with farmers increasingly severing the link to the very natural systems they depend on. By channelling subsidies into a healthier, greener agriculture, our goal is to save our waters, albeit not at the expense of our farmers.  

Switzerland hosts the headwaters of Europe’s major rivers, Rhine, Rhone, and Danube that supply drinking water for tens of millions of European citizens. The European Union is also debating a reform of its agriculture system. It is looking to us in Switzerland where the citizens will have the opportunity to trigger a profound agro-ecological reform of agriculture by adopting the Clean Drinking Water Initiative. This would send a strong message to Brussels to follow a path that most people would like to see: Food production in tune with clean water.


This interview was produced and first published by 1014 in New York City.
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