Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Friday, November 17, 2006

Is Swiss food really that expensive?

I've just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. While the book is an eye-opening account of the state of the American food chain, the analogies that have been made to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle are not entirely fair. Not only is Pollan a more engaging writer, the issues he deals with are far less stomach-turning. (Nor is he a communist, as far as I'm aware.)

The book is divided into three sections: one that explores the corn-based industrial food chain, one that follows the organic and sustainable food movements (they're not quite the same thing), and one that recounts his adventures as a hunter and gatherer. It is impressively researched, and full of interesting (sometimes shocking) tidbits. While I knew corn in this country is absurdly overproduced, I didn't realize the ramifications of that. Nor did I realize that fertilizing our crops consumes fully one fifth of the crude oil that the US uses each year. That's the same amount that we use for driving, and more than most countries, even other industrialized ones, demand. But as mainstream consumers, we don't have many alternatives: organic products, though marginally better, have gotten quite industrialized too. Whole Foods in particular comes under criticism for not buying from local farmers - something that the company has moved to address in recent months.

I enjoyed this book partly because it was a pat on the back for me. Pollan advocates "local" and "sustainable" agriculture over the not-very-meaningful "organic" label; I've been approaching my food this way since long before it was fashionable. While I do buy organic products (Muir Glen has excellent canned tomatoes), I'm usually more concerned with buying local. I pass on Horizon's organic milk from Whole Foods in favor of the non-organic but better tasting Ronnybrook dairy at the farmer's market. I mostly buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. Not that I'm perfect - far from it. As if my willingness to purchase yogurt from Switzerland weren't enough, I love avocados, and I only splurge on organic meat for a special occasion. But I do feel like I'm on the right track.

The book also got me thinking about the vast gulf in food prices between the US and Switzerland. One of the conclusions that Pollan draws is that as American consumers, we don't come close to paying for the true cost of our hyper-industrialized food: prices don't reflect the billions in subsidies the government pays for corn (which goes into much of our food supply, either as food additives such as corn syrup or xanthan gum, or meat that's been corn-raised), or the cost of pollution from artifical fertilizer that's dumped onto the fields.

The Swiss, on the other hand, don't have an industrialized farming system at all. I used to think it was merely quaint to see (and smell) the farmers spraying their fields with manure in the autumn, or workers mowing the grasses on particularly steep hills by hand. It was charming to cycle past cows chewing their cud, lambs out to pasture, and goats grazing next to the autobahn. (It was also irritating to get stuck behind a herd of cattle that were being moved from one field to another.) Now I think they're on to something. The food does taste better over there, after all. And where else can you interact so directly from the farmer? For example, you can purchase a lamb (or pig, or cow) when it's born. The farm then raises it for you; you can visit it whenever you want. I can't imagine most farms in the US doing that.

Food in Switzerland is expensive, no doubt about it. But that's a whole lot different from overpriced. And now, at least, I don't mind paying for it.

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Blogger Jessica Brogan said...

Switzerland does subsidize farming, like America. Close to seventy percent. There is a true devotion to local produce, which is great. However, they have their "bio" (organic) labels too...which also don't amount to squat and are completely OVERPRICED. paying more is easier when you know it's better quality, but only slightly. Not when it's tic tacs, and its 2 francs a tin, or a head of cauliflower and its
7 francs. the novelty does wear off as tbe bills pile up :)

November 17, 2006 at 12:15 PM  
Blogger Ale said...

hi! found you through expat-blogs (i myself am contemplating doing the whole expat thing)

just wanted to say, organic or not, but vegetables and fruits in europe taste AND smell real so somthing good must be going on overthere

November 17, 2006 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Jessica -

Good points all! Is it that 70% of farms receive subsidies, or does the Swiss government subidize 70% of the total cost? (The latter would shock me... that would be something like 13% of GDP, and Switzerland would be as heavily indebted as a third world country.)

I imagine buying "bio" is probably less important in a country like Switzerland. I prrobably won't bother with it myself most of the time since there are already no growth hormones in the milk or meat.

Still, as the novelty of reading the book wears off, it'll probably more honest for me to amend my last sentence to: "I don't mind paying for it as much." =)

Ale - Welcome! Are you thinking of moving to Switzerland?

November 17, 2006 at 4:47 PM  
Anonymous Ale said...

well my guy from holland would like me to come out there. apparently the traffic in and around NYC is just "too much" :)

November 19, 2006 at 3:12 AM  
Blogger Living Away said...

Oh God, I do mind paying those huge amounts of money to buy absolutely nothing.
Going to Migros/Coop is depressing!!

I'm from Brasil and I live here in Switzerland now, after spent some years in the USA.
When I moved to the USA I got depressed after some months of tasteless fruits and vegetables. Then I starting losing my taste and Tropicana wasn’t that bad after all. The first time in my life I drank an orange juice from a box… I used to have only fresh juice in Brasil.

What I mean is, the best fruit and vegetable here in Switzerland are from sunny places like oranges from Spain, grapes from Italy or South Africa, melons and pineapples from Brasil and so on.
What Swiss farmers produce is almost for their own consume, since they have no land to produce some more.

Very nice blog!!

November 19, 2006 at 10:39 PM  
Anonymous heather said...

Just the other day I was having a conversation with someone about the 'real' cost of food so I'm really pleased to have found this. I agree entirely with what Jessica says about some of the high costs of pre=packed, imported stuff like sweets but I have found that buying stuff direct from markets is cheaper and better than what is available in the supermarkets. I try to buy local as much as possible but it does get slightly boring in the winter when the selection of fruit and veg becomes more restricted - and I'm not sure that I could go for the kale pancakes on your other post but I certainly use it as an addition to vegetable soups or as an extra vegetable - it's rather nice sauteed with pancetta and mushrooms and then served with a rich casserole.

November 23, 2006 at 7:56 AM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

I will definitely be experimenting with more kale recipes. Sauteeing it with pancetta and mushrooms sounds excellent! In my book pork makes everything taste better.

The pancakes are a good light supper for me. But I wouldn't serve them to company. Or even my boyfriend, at least not on its own. He's too much of a carnivore to take it sitting down.

November 23, 2006 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

FYI: Switzerland ist the worlds leading country in subsidizing its agriculture. over 60% of the average income of a farmer origins in subsidies. (depending on how you calculate, in 2005 roughly 10% of the national budget was spent supporting farmers). (the only bigger recipients of subsidies are transportation companies. public transport is supported with 8 billion every year)

beside the fact, that swiss food is expensive compared to the rest of europe - the level of prices is in general higher but salarys are as well - a rather bad result of the heavy subsidized agriculture in the 1990s was the "milchberg" literally "milk mountain": farmers were subsidized so much for many years - milk prices were not free but granted by the state - that they produced way to much milk. as you can't store milk, the government paid subsidies to make cheese....and because the swiss could or would not eat so much cheese, at least part of it was exported (again the government paid for making the cheese more affordable abroad) and part of it was destroyed...year by year...

February 17, 2007 at 8:52 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Peter, thanks for the information. It's very interesting, and somewhat discouraging, to hear about the dairy subsidies. That's another mark against the Swiss system, though as a dairy lover I admit I appreciate how inexpensive (yet tasty!) milk, yogurt, and cheese are here.

I do want to point out that although 10% of the budget sounds big, I think in Switzerland federal taxes are very low. I seem to recall hearing that federal income taxes are on the order of 5%. 10% of 5% of GDP isn't too terrible, right?

February 18, 2007 at 1:17 AM  

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