A sustainable food system for a healthy diet in Switzerland
The key results of the 26 research projects can be divided into the following three chapters:
“Healthy nutrition” provides an overview of the results of projects on health and nutrition.
“Sustainability” summarises proposals for improving the environmental compatibility of meat, milk and vegetable production. Several of these may also have direct benefits for human health.
“Policy analysis” presents the results of an analysis of agricultural policy, food safety and public health policy – the policy fields that determine how Switzerland’s food system is regulated.
More fruits and vegetables, less meat
The project “Toward healthy and sustainable diets in Switzerland” was undertaken as part of NRP 69. It took a close look at the Swiss population’s eating habits.
On average, men eat more meat than women do. Furthermore, people in French-speaking Switzerland and Ticino tend to eat less healthily than people in the German-speaking parts of the country, although eating habits in French-speaking Switzerland improved slightly in overall terms between 1993 and 2014.
One characteristic of the Swiss population is that there is a less significant divide between the dietary habits of people from different socio-economic groups than in other countries. In general, the inhabitants of Switzerland should eat more fruit, vegetables, wholegrain foods, nuts and pulses, while consuming less animal products such as red and processed meat.
The project “Social inequality” investigated the eating habits of people living in Western Switzerland and identified reasons that deter people from eating healthily. Fewer than 40% of respondents in the Swiss Health Survey still view high food prices as an obstacle to a healthy diet.
Making healthy food cheaper
Other reasons for not adopting a healthy dietary profile were frequently cited, including a fondness for indulgent food, time pressure, the constraints of daily life or a lack of willpower.
Because it is difficult to change the many personal reasons that motivate eating habits, the researchers of the “Social inequality” project suggest selecting extensive measures that do not focus on specific population groups. They recommend reducing the price of healthy foodstuffs, particularly fruits and vegetables, for example by fostering domestic production.
Encouraging healthy eating in the workplace
Of the Swiss working population, approximately one million eat in a staff restaurant or canteen during the week. Organisations with catering facilities therefore have considerable influence on the health of a large portion of the country’s population.
Two NRP 69 projects have developed various ideas that companies could apply to encourage healthier food intake among their staff. Their results could help us move a step closer to the goal of ensuring that people eat healthy food at their workplaces, as envisioned in the action plan for the Swiss Nutrition Strategy.
The “Salt consumption” project explored ways of encouraging the Swiss population to take up a balanced, less salty diet. Nowadays people’s salt intake largely exceeds the five grammes a day recommended by the World Health Organization.
The researchers studied seven different organisations with staff restaurants in German-speaking Switzerland using a two-sided approach. On the one hand, they sensitised employees of the organisations to the issue by educating them about nutrition, which they then followed up with quarterly health checks. On the other hand, they assisted catering teams in planning and implementing measures to reduce the salt content of the meals they usually provide.
Although the standard plated menus contained almost as much salt at the end of the one-year intervention as initially measured (median salt content 4.4 instead of 4.5 grams per serving), average salt intake of intervention participants fell from 8.7 to 8.1 grammes a day. While women’s mean daily salt intake remained unchanged at 7 grammes – that is already below the intermediate Swiss salt intake target – men’s fell from 10.4 to 9.2 grammes a day. Salt reduction was explained by salt intake at study start, particularly in men, in women also by age and weight status. Both, women and men benefited from the educational programme, developing a stronger awareness of health and nutrition during the year.
The research results show that – given a supportive food environment – regular practice-oriented educational workshops can initiate health relevant changes of dietary habits. Therefore, the researchers recommend systematically extending workplace health promotion to include nutrition. They suggest that guideline values for salt content should be included in existing staff restaurants’ health label criteria.
Activating health motivators with environmental incentives
Another project that addressed the issue of nutrition in the workplace was “Health motivators”. Researchers working on the project investigated how environmental stimuli affect our eating habits. They positioned posters showing different subjects – for example, photos of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti or pleasure-evoking pictures of a funfair – next to vending machines, then evaluated the posters’ effect on consumers’ choices. While pictures of landscapes or activities did not affect the quantity of food purchased, they increased the likelihood of consumers choosing a healthy option.
However, a poster of a skinny Giacometti sculpture next to a vending machine had the effect of reigning in people’s appetite. They ate less than if they had used a machine with no poster or a machine with funfair images. This led the researchers to conclude that environmental stimuli can activate health motivators. The researchers believe that the use of nutrition-related stimuli does not have to be restricted to canteens and staff restaurants.
Helping with weight loss
Two further projects from NRP 69 produced results that could help people lose weight.
Researchers working on the “Preventing obesity” project developed an instrument that uses a breath sample to determine whether the body is metabolising fat at the moment the measurement is taken. The device uses laser spectrometry to measure the concentration of acetone molecules in breath. The human body produces this volatile organic compound when it is using more energy than it is absorbing.
The tests indicate that acetone content in breath is a promising biomarker for measuring the energy balance in the human body: the higher the content, the greater the energy deficit.
Such measuring instruments could therefore help obese patients to monitor their efforts to lose weight and motivate them to continue. This is in line with the current perspective in preventive medicine, providing individual markers for the quantitative follow-up of exposure or of the disease.
Further development is necessary to reduce the instrument’s size and to enable simple practical application.
In the second project – “Functional food” – scientists bound fat droplets into emulsions that release triglycerides only in the duodenum and investigated whether the resulting functional emulsions are capable of prolonging satiation after eating. Their investigations revealed that the emulsions do trigger the satiation stimulus in both animals and humans. This indicates that the special emulsions are suitable for controlling overweight people’s energy intake more effectively. However, the researchers point out that widespread use (in salad dressings, for example) will not be possible without improvement of the sensory characteristics of the emulsions.
New approaches to combat deficiency-related diseases
But NRP 69 did not only address nutritional excesses and how to avoid them. It also looked at the opposite end of the spectrum and ways of avoiding shortfalls in vitamin and mineral intake.
More than two billion people worldwide – primarily women and children – suffer from iron deficiency. The condition causes various problems, including reduced performance, anaemia and a greater susceptibility to diseases. Food supplements currently on the market do not resolve the problem because iron compounds are either hard to digest or have a detrimental impact on the flavour, odour or colour of food.
A research group working on NRP 69 developed a new, nanotechnology-based approach to adding the trace element iron to food. Although iron nanoparticles have a good bioavailability and do not affect taste, they do frequently oxidise and form aggregates, so that the body can no longer utilise them.
The researchers have developed a hybrid material that stabilises the iron nanoparticles. The nanoparticles adhere to what are known as amyloid fibres. These consist of the edible milk protein beta lactoglobulin, a by-product of cheese production. In tests on rats, the researchers established that the iron nanoparticles do not re-dissolve until they enter the acidic environment of the stomach, after which they are rapidly absorbed by the body.
Because the new hybrid material is not only taste-neutral but has a long shelf life and is cheap to produce, the researchers feel that their invention has significant potential as a way of combating iron deficiency – especially in lesser developed countries, where the condition is particularly widespread.
Understanding beneficial effects of beta-glucan
The research group conducting the “Dietary fibre” project analysed the chemical properties of beta-glucan in cereals. This dietary fibre helps to reduce the blood cholesterol level and to control blood sugar. The researchers analysed the effects of food processing on beta-glucan as well as on several specific molecular interactions involving beta-glucan.
The project increased our understanding about the beneficial effects of beta-glucan on health, owing to its interactions with iron and mucin, for example. The researchers call on decision-makers and practitioners to invest more effort in encouraging consumers to gain a better understanding of the components of food. They also invite industry to apply the knowledge gained from the work on this dietary fibre to produce tailor-made foods for individuals suffering from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
Improving vitamin D intake during pregnancy
The “Vitamin D” project investigated the vitamin D status of expectant mothers in Switzerland and found that more than half of the pregnant women had too little vitamin D in their blood. The lack of vitamin D during pregnancy is the most important determinant factor for infantile rickets and may also result in poor foetal and neonatal growth.
The median level of vitamin D in the blood was higher in summer than in winter. Women from Ticino – the sunniest part of the country – had a lower risk of developing vitamin D deficiency than women from Zurich. Women with dark skin types were particularly prone to low vitamin D levels.
The researchers conclude that Swiss guidelines on vitamin supplementation as they currently stand do not adequately protect pregnant women against vitamin D deficiency, either because the recommended doses are too low or, more likely, women do not take their supplements regularly. Medical practitioners need to pay greater attention to vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy.
Groundwork for a healthy and sustainable diet
The Swiss population’s eating habits have far-reaching consequences. The way that food is produced, processed and consumed not only influences human health, it also has repercussions for the environment, the economy and society as a whole. Researchers working on the “Recommendations for sustainable and healthy diets” project modelled various future scenarios in a bid to assess these impacts with greater accuracy. The models show that reducing meat consumption would lead to people following a healthier diet and a food production system that is environmentally and socially more sustainable.
The first scenario assumes that in 2050 the Swiss population will be following the recommendations of the Swiss food pyramid. By contrast, the second scenario, “FeedNoFood”, envisages eating habits that are primarily driven by environmental awareness. This scenario assumes that in 2050 livestock in Switzerland will have a diet consisting entirely of grass and food processing by-products. The current situation, in which the production of animal feed and of human food are in competition, will have ceased to exist. Both, the pyramid and the “FeedNoFood” scenarios, are based on the assumption that the Swiss population will be eating less meat and more pulses by 2050. The third scenario envisages no change in the country’s eating habits.
The analysis showed that the two alternative future scenarios basically imply similar adjustments in eating habits. In both cases, meat consumption is significantly reduced and compensated with pulses. This change generates positive synergies between sustainability and public health: a diet with less meat is healthier and at the same time improves the ecological and social sustainability of food production.
In addition, the analysis suggested that the net self-sufficiency of the Swiss food sector is likely to increase as a result of falling imports of fodder for meat production, and consumers' food expenditure will decrease as their expenditure on expensive animal products decreases. At the macroeconomic level, however, such a change would result in lower added value for the Swiss food sector.
However, the analysis of the scenarios also showed that a change in eating habits leads to many contradictions. There are substantial contradictions in current dietary recommendations with respect to health and health impact models. For example, meat should be eaten as a source of minerals, protein and vitamins, but epidemiological studies suggest that small increases in the risk of several cancers may be associated with high consumption of red meat or processed meat. Another contradiction concerns the foods replacing meat: if plant-based products such as pulses need to be imported, we have to consider the social impacts in exporting countries. These need to be resolved in order to reduce confusion among consumers.
Another conflict identified in the study lies in the expansion of organic production. A higher share of organically produced food could reduce the environmental impacts in Switzerland but would – without changes in diets – lead to higher import levels and might increase environmental pressure abroad due to lower yields.
While fruits and vegetables are considered as healthy, they are quickly perishable and thus contribute to higher amounts of food waste at all supply chain levels. More efficient logistics and producing more sustainable foodstuffs could alleviate this negative impact on the environment in the future.
These examples show how the models substantially contribute to understanding the discrepancies between a strictly agricultural production view and a comprehensive food system view.
The project also showed that a healthy diet and sustainable food production cannot be achieved through unilateral action within the food system. According to the researchers, health, food and agricultural policies – three areas that are currently independent of each other – need to be coordinated into a systemic and shared framework for a future Swiss food system that provides a healthy and sustainable diet for as large a share of the population as possible.
The project “Sustainable agri-food systems” found that the agri-food system is responsible for about one third of all environmental impacts in Switzerland. Given that this sector accounts for just seven per cent of the national gross added value, this means that the sector disproportionately contributes to the environmental burden. Coordination between agricultural production, the processing industry, wholesaling, retailing and the consumption of food is needed to make the food system more sustainable.
In this chapter, “sustainability” refers mainly to the environmental impact of the food system, but in some instances also to its social and economic dimensions.
Environmental performance of dairy farms in Swiss mountain regions
In the “Sustainable milk production” project, researchers assessed the environmental performance of dairy farms in mountain regions. Based on their work, they recommend always taking into account both the local and the global dimension when determining the environmental performance of farms, but distinguishing clearly between the two.
The research group identified factors that could potentially simultaneously improve both the global and local environmental performance as well as the economic performance of dairy farms in mountain regions. These factors are organic farming, better educated farm managers and, to a lesser extent, low-intensity use of cattle concentrate feed, larger farm size as well as full-time farming.
Measures to reduce emissions in dairy housing
Dairy farming accounts for a significant share of greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. Ammonia not only harms sensitive ecosystems, it can also contribute to the formation of particulate matter that can harm human health.
For these reasons, one of the targets in the Umweltziele Landwirtschaft is a 40% reduction in ammonia emissions compared to 2005 in Switzerland. Researchers working on the “Cow emissions” project investigated the efficacy of various measures to reduce ammonia emissions. They found out that structural measures, which address the soiled floors, the main source of ammonia, are very promising.
The first structural measure investigated was a floor with a 3% slope, so that the cows’ urine could drain rapidly from the floor surface to a central gutter. An automatic manure scraper ran 12 times a day to enable unhindered drainage. First results showed 20% lower ammonia emissions in the system with the sloped floor compared to the reference system without slope.
The second structural measure which resulted in a significant reduction in ammonia emission were the “feeding stalls”. The cows stood on a raised feeding area with partitions. Since there was hardly any faeces and urine on the platform, the heavily soiled area was reduced. The aisle behind the feeding stalls was frequently cleaned using a manure scraper without disturbing the cows while they were feeding.
In addition to the reduction of ammonia, both measures also led to cleaner and drier floor surfaces, which improved claw health and housing hygiene.
Both measures have been incorporated into the new “Ordinance on Structural Improvements in Agriculture”. The Ordinance provides financial support for farmers who implement these measures to convert or build cattle housings.
Protecting the environment and the health of pigs
Like dairy farming, meat production also has an impact on the environment. Over the past 30 years, average meat consumption in Switzerland has fallen from 60 to 50 kilogrammes a year. Pork is still the most popular meat in the country, as the 2017 figure of 22 kilogrammes testifies. Researchers of the “Healthy pigs” project developed a model for pork production that not only reduces ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions, but simultaneously improves the animals’ health and well-being.
To reduce greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions, this research group explored the pigs’ protein efficiency. The more efficiently the animals can metabolise proteins, the less of it ends up in slurry as a source of nitrogen and ammonia.
The researchers also conducted a study of 112 pig farms to investigate when and where infections were most frequent and antibiotic use had to be increased in response.
According to the researchers, the following factors are essential for low-antibiotic pig rearing: good trough hygiene, appropriate amounts of special feed for young animals and avoiding that animals of different ages share the same sty. Reducing antibiotic use in pig farming contributes, among other things, to preventing the further spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that are pathogenic for humans and animals.
Limiting metal pollution in soil
Two NRP 69 projects addressed the environmental impact of arable farming. The “Metal exposure” project investigated levels of cadmium, copper, uranium and zinc in Switzerland’s arable land and grassland.
The results show that agricultural practices during the last fifty years have caused an accumulation of these metals in the soil. This is worrying for two reasons. Not only can elevated metal concentrations affect soil fertility, the metals also enter the human food chain because plants absorb them.
Over a one-year period, the research team took various soil samples from three different cornfields to which mineral fertilisers had been applied and three pastures that had been manured so that they could measure metal inflow and outflow in them.
The researchers found that the four metals had accumulated in the upper soil layers of all the fields they investigated. The primary source of the cadmium and uranium was mineral phosphate fertiliser. To limit metal pollution in the soil, the researchers recommend introducing a new uranium guidance value for mineral fertilisers and carefully checking this value and the guidance value for cadmium.
In addition, the accumulation of both metals could be avoided by increasing the use of recycled fertilisers, or waste products (slurry), which are low in heavy metals.
Manure is the primary source of zinc and copper in the soil. Both trace metals are contained in the feed as additives, are excreted by the animals and end up in the manure.
To reduce the input of copper in the future, the researchers recommend that the guidelines relating to the addition of copper and zinc to animal feed be strictly applied and that liquid manure distribution be optimised across farmed areas. Furthermore, the adoption of grain varieties that absorb very little cadmium but transport zinc efficiently into the grain should be encouraged.
Change crop rotation to avoid fungal infection
The “Safe cereals” project compared different grain varieties in terms of their resistance to Fusarium infections. The main issue addressed by the project was how to reduce Fusarium infection in cereals. Because these fungi release dangerous toxins – known as mycotoxins – they pose a health risk if they contaminate cereals.
In growth chambers and field experiments, the researchers established that barley was more susceptible to Fusarium infection at 15°C than at cooler (10°C) or warmer (20°C) temperatures. Barley proved to be less resistant than oats at all stages of its growth.
Their results confirm that modifying crop rotation is the most effective way of preventing mycotoxin contamination. Barley should not be sown in fields where maize was the previous crop, while oats should follow large-grained cereals.
Two thirds of the Swiss environmental footprint occurs abroad
The “Sustainable agri-food systems” project simulated possible trends in the Swiss food system as part of NRP 69. The researchers applied two environmental-economic models. One of them shows that the agri-food system in Switzerland accounts for 17% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Most of the greenhouse gases are attributable to meat and milk production. Crop cultivation has a heavy environmental impact because it involves considerable amounts of land and water. In contrast, the environmental impact of the food processing industry, and trade and distribution are relatively low, even though these sectors generate the most added value.
The research team also showed that around two thirds of the environmental footprint of Swiss food consumption occurs abroad because of the amount of food, feedstuffs and raw materials that Switzerland imports. This environmental footprint refers to the aggregated environmental impacts, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity damage potential.
Strengthening partnerships between producers and consumers
Researchers from the “Organic food baskets” project argue that efforts to make food supplies in Switzerland more sustainable should involve integrated strategies that target producers and consumers. They propose a standard integrated strategy.
The project shows that encouraging people to eat locally sourced, seasonal food not only supports domestic producers, but also helps promote a healthy and sustainable diet. Over the last thirty years, there has been a growing interest in regional food networks in Switzerland. Such networks offer regional products by subscription, creating a direct partnership between farmers and consumers that allows them to share the risks if, for example, harvests are low due to bad weather.
The research group working on the “Organic food baskets” project carried out case studies on three different schemes in French-speaking Switzerland. They found that local contract farming (LCF) is evolving from a niche phenomenon into more rigorously structured systems. But the systems seem to be having trouble gaining the acceptance of broad sections of the public. 80% of the members of the food networks had a high education level and belonged to the middle or upper classes.
In all three case studies, the subscription system brought producers greater autonomy because food baskets give them a more secure basis for planning. Moreover, many farmers reported that their work was more highly valued as a result of their partnership with consumers. Simultaneously, local contract farming encourages healthy and sustainable eating habits.
The researchers therefore recommend promoting LCF schemes, for example by increasing the number of partnerships between local producers and public and semi-state-controlled institutions such as crèches, schools, retirement and care homes.
Reducing food losses and waste: a source of leverage to make the food system more efficient and sustainable
Worldwide, around one third of all the food produced for human consumption ends up uneaten. The figure for Switzerland is similar, according to the Federal Office for the Environment. This translates into 2.6 million tonnes a year, with two thirds avoidable. On average, every inhabitant wastes 190 kilogrammes of edible food per year.
An estimated 37% of food losses occur in the industry; the catering trade accounts for 11% and the retail trade for a further 4%. Nine per cent of food losses occur in agriculture. But the biggest part of food waste – 39%, almost 900,000 tonnes a year – occurs in consumers’ households.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, food waste refers to the discarding or alternative (non-food) use of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption. According to the same source, food losses can be defined as the decrease in food, either in quantity or quality. These are agricultural or fish products intended for human consumption, which are ultimately not eaten, or which have suffered a perceived decline in quality – in terms of their nutritional, economic value or food safety. They occur throughout the food supply chain. Knowing that two thirds of the environmental footprint of Swiss food consumption occurs abroad, the impact of food production in Switzerland is obviously limited. Thus, systematically reducing losses and waste could help make the Swiss food system more sustainable in a relatively short time. The government currently relies on voluntary measures and employs a variety of communication activities to raise public awareness.
However, the Swiss government ratified the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 12.3 calls for edible food waste to be halved at the retail and consumer levels, and to reduce food losses in agriculture, trade, and the processing industry by 2030. Therefore, the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment (FOEN) is developing a strategy to monitor and reduce food waste.
As part of this strategy, the FOEN published a report summarising amounts of food waste and environmental impacts in Switzerland, in collaboration with ETH Zurich. The objective of this report is to identify hotspots of environmental relevance, deduce effective measures for food waste prevention, create a scientific basis for an awareness-building campaign and identify major research gaps.
One of the problems in conducting this type of analysis is how to measure losses and waste. At European Union level, in May 2019, the European Commission decided to introduce a common methodology to measure food losses and waste in the EU.
A study on potato losses
The general issue of food losses and waste and the scale of the problem is known (see box “Reducing food losses and waste”). However, it will only be possible to efficiently reduce food losses and waste if we have detailed information at each stage of the food value chain. At present, there are few comprehensive surveys of individual foodstuffs.
In NRP 69, one such initiative was carried out along the value chain for Swiss potatoes: the “Food losses” project showed that no less than 53% of the potato crop is not consumed by humans. Almost half of the losses occur at farm-level. Having detailed insight into the potato value chain enabled the researchers to propose measures to reduce food losses and waste in general.
The project suggests that the cosmetic standards for potatoes be reduced, and that potatoes that do not meet the standards for food processing be used as fodder. Additionally, the team suggests that smaller, lightproof packaging could help consumers buy the right amount of potatoes to cover their needs.
These propositions are tailored to the potatoes value chain and cannot be easily transferred to other foods. The researchers recommend analysing the food value chain of other products, e.g. different types of vegetables, in a similar way. This will identify the extent and causes of waste at each stage of the value chain and provide a basis from which effective measures to reduce food losses and waste could be developed.
Innovations in date-marking and food preservation
The “Nano-preservation” project provides a nanotechnology-based alternative to best-before dates of certain foodstuffs. The research group developed smart labels for packaging that react, e.g., to pH change in the food. Thus, for food that turns acid during spoilage, its deterioration is indicated by a change in colour or fluorescence of the labels. This technology is not ready yet for the market; further research on other indicator systems, on the consumers’ acceptance and on the production costs of such packaging is needed.
Another project called “Preservative bacteria” investigated the possibility of using lactic acid bacteria as a possible way of preserving food for longer. The researchers developed a process for selecting the bacterial cultures with the best preservative properties.
Using such cultures in production processes could increase food shelf-lives and food safety by reducing contaminations. This could be the case for Staphylococci bacteria contaminations. Staphylococci release substances in the food that are toxic for humans. Other examples are contaminations with Listeria or Salmonella, two widespread pathogens. The food industry is making increasing use of such bacterial strains, which have very diverse properties and can be used for many different purposes.
However, there is no overarching coordination in the management of the data on strains that have been scientifically investigated and classified as potentially useful. The team recommends exploiting the food-preserving potential of bacteria more effectively. This includes the sharing of information on known strains: data should be collected on a central platform for public and private partners and made freely and directly accessible.
In the “Staphylococci” project, researchers investigated the risk factors for bacterial food poisoning induced by Staphylococci. They investigated the impact of four stress factors on the formation of various staphylococcal toxins. They analysed the effect of high levels of salt, sugar, pickling salt and lactic acid (low pH), since these factors occur frequently during food processing and storage.
It emerged that the bacteria released less dangerous toxins, so called enterotoxins, in an environment that contained a high salt or sugar level. But the team also noted that each bacterial strain reacted differently to the stress factors tested.
To better address the health risks posed by Staphylococci, the researchers recommend developing new detection strategies, focussing on the quantification of enterotoxins present in the food instead of on counting the number of bacteria. The development of such detection systems is likely to increase food safety for consumers and help to reduce food losses.
The future of nutrition research
Two research groups participated in the European Joint Programming Initiative “A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life” (JPI-HDHL) and paved the way for more efficient nutrition research.
It is generally accepted that dietary intake has an influence on health, but exactly how this happens differs from person to person: genetic predisposition, personal metabolism and environmental factors all play a role. There are still no precise methods available for measuring the impact of dietary intake. New biomarkers can be used to observe the relationship between dietary intake and health more effectively and predict it more reliably for specific population groups. The aim of the research project “Mirdiet” was to find new genetic biomarkers in the human body that provide indicators of the impact of dietary intake on health. The focus was on specific RNA molecules, or microRNAs. These non-coding ribonucleic acids circulate in the blood and play a role in the regulation of gene expression. Using volunteer test subjects, the study analysed the effects of changes in diet on various microRNAs. Overall, the technical difficulties associated with measuring microRNAs in the bloodstream had a limiting effect on the results obtained. The scientists recommend continuing to search for biomarkers for food intake, despite the complexity of the methods used to quantify them. Technical progress could help overcome these obstacles by making it easier to measure the microRNAs circulating in the bloodstream, since these still have plenty of potential in nutritional research and the promotion of a healthy diet.
It is common practice today for nutritional scientists conducting investigations on food consumption to depend on data from questionnaires. A new method holds out promise of more accurate results: dietary metabolomes (the complete set of substances found in the blood and urine after the consumption of food) have been used to analyse the effects of food on people's health, but only a few types of food are currently covered by such biomarkers. The aim of the international research consortium “FOODBALL” was to identify specific biomarkers for certain foodstuffs. Their search was successful: they were able to classify a number of metabolic products from which the consumption of specific foods could be inferred. For example, researchers from Agroscope and the University of Lausanne who participated in FOODBALL were able to identify biomarkers in the human metabolism that provide evidence of the consumption of milk, cheese and soy drinks. Molecules produced when dairy products are digested include galactose and lactose.
Switzerland’s food system is largely shaped by three different policy fields: agricultural policies, food safety requirements and public health policies. As part of NRP 69, a policy analysis was conducted to examine these three areas. The researchers were interested in the problems that policies aim to address, as well as the concrete measures employed for this purpose. They distinguished three types of measures: regulations that impose negative sanctions for non-compliance, positive incentives and information measures. This chapter summarises the results of their analysis.
Agricultural policies with different goals
Agricultural policies come at the beginning of the food system’s value creation chain. In Switzerland, policies regulate food production in a variety of ways. The two main ways are incentives in the form of subsidies and regulations. Informal measures such as information campaigns are rare.
Many agricultural policy measures pursue several goals simultaneously. For example, food production is supported through subsidies. Other subsidies are used to encourage the conservation of natural resources and animal welfare.
The important role of subsidies and regulations and the multitude of objectives they pursue can be traced back to the long history of Swiss agricultural policies and the strong role of the federal government.
There are political instruments employed in agricultural policies that aim at limiting the environmental impact of agricultural production. The instruments used to pursue this goal are relatively new and/or of a rather non-binding nature.
Homogeneous food safety policy
As a policy field, food safety embraces all measures intended to ensure that food can be consumed safely. Such measures cover a wide range of areas, from food production and distribution through to consumption. Food safety is primarily guaranteed by strict legislation and control systems. Swiss food safety policies are relatively homogeneous and the Swiss regulation is fully harmonised with the EU.
Measures to promote healthy eating
Since large parts of public health represent new policy fields in Switzerland and are still finding their feet, not many instruments are yet in place. This may be a reason why most efforts to promote a healthy diet are information driven. The information campaigns aim to strengthen consumers’ awareness of the need to eat healthily and give them the skills to do so.
The Swiss Nutrition Strategy 2017-2024 contains no regulations and incentives to establish framework conditions that are conducive to healthy eating. Responsibility for health promotion in federal Switzerland lies largely with the cantons. As a result, existing health policy measures are substantially less binding in nature than measures implemented in agricultural or food safety policies.
Switzerland generally implements few political measures that target consumers directly. A limited statutory basis prevents the federal government from playing a more active role in public health. This means that government agencies must rely on the voluntary cooperation of both the industry and the Cantons in their efforts to encourage healthy eating decisions.
Hence, public health policies that actively foster healthy nutrition are less developed in Switzerland.
The EU has had a comprehensive, non-mandatory strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues since 2007. A European initiative, validated amongst others by Switzerland, was also recently launched to reduce the amount of sugar in processed foods.
Conflicting interests in the Swiss food system’s policies
The researchers’ policy analysis showed that Swiss food safety and public health policies pursue essentially coherent goals. No major conflicts were identified, either within the individual policy fields or in interaction with other areas. In addition, there are no conflicts in terms of Switzerland's international obligations towards the European Union.
Swiss agricultural policies are less coherent. Here, the policy analysis brought several potential areas of conflict to light. For instance, agricultural policies pursue two quite different objectives. The first is to increase access to foreign markets. In pursuit of this goal, agreements were negotiated with the European Union on partly eliminating or reducing customs tariffs, for example. Switzerland also has free trade agreements with individual states.
However, at the same time, the federal government imposes a strict regulatory framework on Swiss agriculture and makes corrective interventions in the market. This latter occurs, for example, when farmers have to comply with certain environmental standards. Such contradictory agricultural policy goals inevitably pave the way for conflicts.
On the one hand, the government wants Swiss agriculture to be able to compete effectively in the European single market, yet on the other, it uses comparatively stringent regulations to protect domestic producers and the environment. Political goals have to be constantly adapted to accommodate these incoherencies.
There is thus a conflict between foreign trade and common market. Such conflicts arise for example when agricultural policies set out to secure supplies of agricultural produce while at the same time demanding higher environmental standards – in both cases with free market conditions as the underlying premise. Such conflicts in agricultural policies have to be kept carefully balanced.
The researchers regard the numerous cooperation ventures with private-sector partners in all three policy areas – agriculture, food safety and public health – as a further source of political tensions: Stakeholders such as processing companies, major retailers or pressure groups – for example environmental organisations, farming associations or health organisations – play a major role in developing and implementing political measures. Tensions can arise during partnerships such that constant observation by the State is necessary.
Greater say for consumers in decisions affecting the food system
The NRP 69 “Citizen consumer” project revealed that, although consumers have more influence on nutrition than ever before, their influence on political decisions affecting the food system is still limited.
The research group recommends various measures to increase consumers’ influence on nutrition-related political decisions. These include extending the right of appeal to consumer protection organisations and giving consumers the right to file class actions. The researchers also suggest that the State could give consumers a greater role in public duties, for example in contributing to specific food inspection tasks as already done on communal level or in creating new entities that could constitute a platform for closer cooperation between consumers and politics.