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Protecting cropland: Switzerland needs better soil data

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The fear that Switzerland’s food supplies could be exhausted in times of crisis has endowed Swiss cropland with its currently best protection shield against bulldozers and construction cranes. The federal government’s Sectoral Plan on Cropland Protection from 1992 specifies that a total of 438,460 hectares of the land that could be used for crops to “ensure food security in emergency situations” must be protected. This corresponds to about a tenth of the country’s surface area.


The Sectoral Plan is binding for the whole of Switzerland. The area of cropland that must be maintained is divided up between the cantons. “This is a good scheme,” says Silvia Tobias from the WSL Research Group ‘Land-Use Systems’. She is co-author of the WSL Report on spatial planning instruments for cropland protection, which compares Switzerland with some other European countries (‘Instrumente zum Schutz des Kulturlandes: Ein Vergleich der mit ausgewählten europäischen Ländern’ – only available in German).

Thanks to these regulations, Switzerland is today not badly placed internationally in the way it maintains its most fertile land. Most of the other countries evaluated have realised that urgent action is now needed to slow down the loss of agricultural land. How they go about this varies, according to the Report. While Switzerland concentrates on food production, in other countries the focus is more on maintaining green zones with diverse functions, such as agriculture, nature conservation or recreation, especially in areas around cities. One example is the so-called ‘Green Belts’ in Britain.

Land performs many services

The fertile land close to cities is under the most pressure. “The growth of cities takes place on the best land,” says Silvia. There are historical reasons for this: people settled on the most productive land. One by one villages were formed, and then cities, which have since spread ever further into agricultural zones.

Farmland is, however, much more than just an area to grow food: it filters drinking water, provides protection against floods and soil erosion, is home to rare species and functions as a recreation area. The Swiss Sectoral Plan gives clear priority to its production function. In some of Germany’s federal states, in contrast, spatial planning also takes some of its other services, such as nature or water protection, into account. This system allows planning to be more flexible. As Silvia explains: you can then weigh up the pros and cons not only of crops and housing, but also of other services that land provides.

Nationwide soil-maps are lacking

As a basis for balancing these interests, high-resolution maps of the soil characteristics throughout the country are needed. No such maps for Switzerland exist, however, even though it has, as a country, otherwise been so well surveyed. “Neither the public nor the authorities are sufficiently aware how important soil is,” says Frank Hagedorn from the WSL Research Group ‘Biogeochemistry’. He was head of the sub-project ‘Soil and Environment’ of the National Research Programme NRP 68 ‘Sustainable Use of Soil as a Resource’. One of the federal government’s recommendations is to map Swiss soils across the country and analyse them in a standard way.

This is also the view of the expert group advising on the current revision of the Sectoral Plan on Cropland Protection, of which Silvia Tobias was also a member. She further recommends taking into consideration other land functions, such as nature conservation and recreation, and granting prime cropland areas the same status as the forest: where a forest is destroyed, another area must be reforested. “The same should apply to prime cropland,” says Silvia.  (Beate Kittl, Diagonal 2/18)