Sustainability and Agriculture, a Difficult Pairing? – Nachhaltiges Basel

Not only is the agricultural industry struggling to provide for the increasing population, but the food that is provided is largely susceptible to being wasted. The AG Nachhaltigkeit has submitted a demand paper to the University of Basel to make the cafeteria more sustainable and discusses changes at the individual and societal level that can contribute to minimize waste, maximize food production efficiency, and change corporation and consumer behavior. Von Jeannine Fluri und Muguette Müller

Between 1940 and 1970, there was a significant shift from traditional farming methods to the intensive agriculture required to sustain today’s population. This brought with it an ever-increasing need for fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide input and capital relative to the amount of land being farmed, as well as a dependence on unfertile hybrid seeds and heavy machines for farming and irrigation. With this, commonly known as the ‘Green Revolution,’ came a great increase in food production which reduced hunger and increased human life spans. 

However, it also led to new problems. On the one hand, it brought with it ecological problems like soil degradation and infertility, nitrogen deposition, increased greenhouse gas emissions and loss in biodiversity. On the other hand, it led to social problems because the gap between rich and poor widened.[1] Many small farmers had to give up their farms because they could no longer afford the expensive seeds and pesticides. Additionally, the food produced is not fairly distributed, so that some countries benefit more than others.

These problems are intensified because of the fact that globally, only around 33% of land is suitable for agricultural use,[2] and it is not equally distributed over the world. Moreover, this land’s suitability for different agricultural products is influenced directly by the climate, vegetation, topography, and economy of the country in which it is found. 

Today, this poses less problems because of the worldwide distribution systems that allow the importation of scarce or exportation of abundant agricultural products. However, this has led to strong dependency relationships between some countries and resulted in unbalanced power relations and shortages in food supplies in situations of war or instability. 

Not only is this 33% of land that is suitable for agriculture not equally distributed around the world, but most of it is already employed for the purpose of agriculture.[3] This means that if food supplies are to keep up with the growing global population, this cannot be done by spreading into new land. 

Alarmingly, the percentage is also decreasing because of urbanization spreading to house the growing population, and because of depletion in soil fertility, erosion, and shifts in climate.[4] The pressure to increase annual yields without being able to substantially expand agricultural land use means that pesticide use is increasing rapidly, in some countries up to 33-fold since the 1940s, which poisons ecosystems (and particularly species that are not the targeted ones) and the people administering them.[5] Moreover, agricultural practices are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide and methane) and immense water use.

Evidently, agricultural practices are already significantly unsustainable. To add to this, the increasing pressure of population growth will only exacerbate the problem: by 2050, the demand for food will be 60% higher than in the early 2000s because of the projected population rise to 9 billion.[6]

Not only is the agricultural industry struggling to provide for the increasing population, but the food that is provided is largely susceptible to being wasted. Food waste represents a significant loss of the already lingering resources, meaning that the dwindling yield is not being used to its full potential. Currently, about a third of food produced is wasted annually, meaning it is spoiled, consumed by pests, or discarded – a statistic which is consistent both in Switzerland and globally.[7]

In the Global North, this waste is largely due to the distribution system – food is either discarded because of cosmetic standards and plate waste, ineffective food use, or spoiling.[8] For example, in Switzerland, there are 2.8 million tons of food wasted annually, which comes to around 300 kg per person, and is equally divided between private households and gastronomy. To relativize this, it takes the size of the canton of Zurich to produce all this food which is wasted. From the financial perspective: private households throw away around CHF 1’000.00 – 2’000.00 worth of food annually, which adds up to several billion Swiss Francs on the national level.[9]

In the Global South, conversely, food waste more commonly occurs at the producer end due to crop failure, pest spoilage, or damage during storage or delivery due to suboptimal infrastructure.[10]

Seeing as how the pressure on agriculture and the resources it uses is becoming higher than ever, it is imperative that agricultural and distribution practices become more efficient. 

So what am I supposed to do about it?

A lot of the issues described above may seem too systematic to be able to change significantly as an individual, but individual consumption decisions can add up. For example – buying 1kg of asparagus from Mexico in February uses 5L of petrol, whereas buying 1kg of asparagus from Switzerland in May (when it’s in season) uses only 0.3L.[11] So, buying local and seasonal food uses less energy resources. See the AG Nachhaltigkeit’s Sustainability Map of Basel to look up the stores near you making sustainable consumption more possible.

It is not only the seasonality and origin of foods that are relevant to the question of sustainability, but also what we actually buy. A study by Marlow et. al from 2009 shows that the production of eleven food items that are considerable different within a vegetarian and nonvegetarian diet, uses 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more primary energy, 13 times more fertilizer and 1.4 times more pesticides. With lowering the consumption of meat or even changing to a vegetarian/vegan diet one can therefore significantly decrease the pressure on the already dwindling resources. [13]

Regardless of what you choose to eat – now that we have seen how many resources are squandered through food waste, a main priority should be to buy what you need and make sure to make the most of it. 

Sustainability and Agriculture, a pairing in need of policy change

While individual shifts in behavior can be beneficial, large-scale solutions are crucial if agricultural practices are to become more sustainable and enough food can simultaneously be produced to feed the growing population (and thus ensure food security across the world). This is because individual behavior changes are limited by the structural context determined by governments and corporations. 

For example, a consumer’s agency is dictated by the options available in the store, and the extent to which they can inform themselves about these products available for purchase. Thus, policy changes could facilitate individual potential by enabling, encouraging or even subsidizing more sustainable choices or supporting local initiatives.[14]An example could involve implementing transformation funds for producers or a climate/environmental tax on animal-based foods.[15]

Simultaneously, more substantial changes on the macro level are required from these upper echelons of decision-making. National targets need to be established (in dialogue with both public and private sectors), followed and invested in to minimize waste, maximize food production efficiency, and change corporation and consumer behavior.

Case Study – The University Mensa

The Mensa at the University of Basel has long been one of the centers of efforts to make the campus more sustainable. In the past, this has involved ensuring access to vegetarian food, low food mileage (meaning only around 1% of ingredients are traveling via plane), and seasonal foods. The university’s AG Nachhaltigkeit (sustainability working group) partnered up with the skuba (student union) to put together a demand paper to make the cafeteria even more sustainable. Suggestions put forward included:

  • Only sourcing animal products from ‘animal-friendly’ sources, like for example those with the ‘Bio-Suisse’ or ‘Demeter’ label. Currently, only 60% of the animal products used are from ‘animal-friendly’ sources.
  • There should be a price difference between those meals containing meat and those without to reflect the market price of the production as well as the environmental footprint (as has been done at both the ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich).
  • The meals should all be of similar quality and nutritional value – often the vegetarian/vegan meals are much more simple and less nutritious (e.g. just a plate of Rösti, compared to the meat option which is Rösti with a creamy Geschnezeltes). The meat-free options should seek to include protein and other nutrients, as well as flavor. The Planetary Health Diet was suggested as a guideline. 
  • Meal information should be displayed so consumers can make an informed decision (e.g. carbon footprint, origin of ingredients, ethical labels etc.). 
  • More local ingredients should be used – ideally the majority should be from Switzerland, but the bounty of produce in Baselland, Solothurn and Argaau could also be benefited from.
  • Single-use coffee cups should be phased out or at least compensated with the provision of reusable alternatives.

More fundamentally, a suggestion put forward was to change the composition of the meals – that each meal had a meat-free baseline, and that consumers could pay extra to have the meat added on (in a way that would reflect the market price of the production). This is currently the case at the University of Lucerne. 

This demand paper led to collaborative meetings with Mensa representatives in which they agreed to trial introducing a CHF 1.00 price difference between the meat and vegetarian/vegan meals for the month of May in order to encourage a higher consumption of meat-free meals. With this trial a mix of individual and systemic change was called for, as the Mensa was shifting its assortment but consumers still needing to choose the more sustainable options themselves. 

This price difference did not lead to a behavior change but the survey after the trial month shows that members of the university are willing to pay more for dishes with meat (especially if it is more ethical, sustainable or local) even though students are living on a tight budget. 

This suggests that market-based action such as the introduction of a climate or environmental tax on meat would be accepted. With such a tax, not only would prices for meat increase and vegetarian products become more affordable, but people would also become more acquainted with how their consumption habits influence the environment, which could influence their behavior in the long term.

It is difficult to predict what will happen with the results from the trial month and our demands. Currently, a restructuring concerning the Mensa is occurring at the University. The contract with the current caterer, SV (Schweiz) AG, has expired and has now been posted for open application. We hope that our demands will be taken into account in the selection of the new caterer and that they will be included in the selection criteria.

Closing Remarks

We don’t want this to be another article that just preaches to the choir – if you are happy to reduce your consumption of animal products, focus on more seasonal and local food, and even splurge on organic food when possible, that’s great! But if not, we are under no impression that this article will have done much to change your mind. What we do hope is that you have become more aware of the intricacies of the intersection between agriculture and sustainability efforts. If anything, you might consider valuing food more highly now that you know how many resources go into its production and how scarce these resources are becoming. Whatever you decide to eat – make sure not to waste it!

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[1] J. D. Gussow and K. L. Clancy, “Dietary guidelines for sustainability,” Journal of Nutritional Education 18 (1986): 1–5; R. Goodland, “Environmental sustainability in agriculture: diet matters,” Ecological Economics 23 (1997): 189–200; A. Carlsson-Kanyama, “Climate change and dietary choices: how can emissions of greenhouse gases from food consumption be reduced?” Food Policy 3–4 (1998): 277–98; H. Steinfeld et al. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006): xxiii; R. Worrell and M. C. Appleby, “Stewardship of natural resources: definition, ethical and practical aspects,” Journal of Agriculture Environmental Ethics 12 (2000): 263–77; H. J. Marlow, W. K. Hayes, S. Soret, R. L. Carter, E. R. Schwab and J. Sabaté, “Diet and the environment: does what you eat matter?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89(5) (2009): 1699S.

[2] [3] Vaclav Smil, Feeding the world: a challenge for the twenty-first century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 118.

[4] H. J. Marlow et al., “Diet and the environment,” 1699S-1703S.

[5] L. Levitan, I. Merwin, J. Kovach, “Assessing the relative environmental impacts of agricultural pesticides: the quest for a holistic method,” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 55 (1995): 153–68; H. J. Marlow et al., “Diet and the environment,” 1700S; L. R. Brown, “Human food production as a process in the biosphere,” Scientific American 223 (1970): 161–70; M.G. Paoletti and D. Pimentel, “Environmental risks of pesticides versus genetic engineering for agricultural pest control,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 12 (2000): 279–303; V. Foster et al., ”Incorporation external impacts in pest management choices,” In: W. Vorley, D. Keeney, eds. Bugs in the system 94 (1998): 94–106.

[6] N. Alexandratos and J. Bruinsma, World agriculture towards 2030/50: the 2012 revision (Rome: Farming and Agriculture Organisation, 2012), 3.

[7] J. A. Foley, “Can We Feed The World and Sustain the Planet?” Scientific American (2015): 89; Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources – Summary Report. (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013), 6.

[8] “Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses,” Agricultural Market Information System, last modified June 2, 2011,; Foley, “Can We Feed The World,” 89.

[9] “Food Waste,” Amt für Umwelt und Energie, last visited October 13, 2022,

[10] “Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses;” J. Gustavsson et al., Global Food Losses and Food Waste (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011), 10; J. Sabaté, H. Harwatt, and S. Soret, “Environmental Nutrition: A New Frontier for Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health (Published online ahead of print March 17, 2016): 816; Foley, “Can We Feed The World,” 89.

[11] “Food Waste,” Amt für Umwelt und Energie.

[12] “Food Waste,” Amt für Umwelt und Energie.

[13]  H. J. Marlow et al., “Diet and the environment,” 1699S-1703S. 

[14] Foley, “Can We Feed The World,” 89; Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources – Summary Report. (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013), 6.

[15] A. Bangerter, “Verminte Böden: «Es droht für mehrere Jahre eine Hungerkrise.»” bz Basel, retrieved October 13, 2022,

Bild: Pixabay

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