Food for People and Planet

Food for People and Planet - Priority themes sustainability research
Image: Hansjakob Fehr

Using six priority themes, the "White Paper on Sustainability Research" outlines Switzerland's most urgent research needs in order to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Food for People and Planet
Current high-input and high-output food systems have many negative consequences for producers, consumers, and natural environments worldwide. Projections based on the increasing wealth of lowand middle-income countries suggest that meat consumption will continue to grow, which will only increase pressure on the environment. It remains unclear how to develop a sustainable food system that is beneficial to all actors and contributes to a global system capable of feeding 9–10 billion people by 2050.

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Key unresolved questions

Switzerland has a very complex system of legal regulations, state and private incentives, farmer initiatives, and competing trends among citizens and consumers. Initial questions thus centre on comparative analysis of current agricultural practices:

  • How well do dominant agricultural systems (and associated technology) in Switzerland address sustainability, taking into account ecological, economic, and social dimensions as well as good governance of all actors?
  • How well do these systems perform with respect to curbing biodiversity losses, addressing climate change, protecting and improving water use, as well as other impacts and externalities?How do the resulting public goods and transaction costs of different policy measures compare when applied to existing farm practices?


Despite many individual initiatives and concepts, Switzerland lacks a comprehensive vision for sustainable, resilient food systems that is valid across many actors and value chains.

  • How would a broadly shared policy vision for the Swiss food system look, and how would it address the issues raised in the other chapters of the present research agenda?
  • What are different scenarios for future food use and production in Switzerland, beyond earlier more global models?
  • How much promise does a truly sustainable food production and consumption system have in Switzerland? How could such a system secure the livelihoods of the farming community?


With the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report of 2005, the IPCC Report on Climate Change and Agriculture of 2007, and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) of 2008, the scientific world has laid essential foundations and generated a wealth of data for the renewal of agriculture and nutrition. Nevertheless, to date, the proposals for transformation remain contradictory and imprecise. The following questions arise:

  • What are the exogenous drivers and endogenous incentives and nudges for change in agriculture and nutrition in Switzerland (‘from pitchfork to table fork’)? What potential role is there for harmonization of agricultural, agri-environmental, and food-related health policies? Swiss Academies Reports, Vol. 15, Nr. 5, 2020 21 What are the roles played by different stakeholders, information channels, and the responsiveness of information recipients (e.g. farmers, consumers, industry)? What is the potential of the Swiss regulatory framework in fostering a transition to sustainable food production and food consumption?
  • What changes are needed in the international trade of agricultural goods (food, feed) to resolve the major contradictions between production conditions (e.g. animal welfare, social fairness, environmental conservation) at home and in countries exporting to Switzerland? How can the economic, social, and ecological externalities of Switzerland’s food and feed imports be quantified and what kinds of mechanisms could be implemented to internalize them?
  • What are the trade-offs and synergies between ‘protectionism’ and trade distortion, on the one hand, and global sustainability, on the other?

Arable farming was one of humanity’s great cultural and technical achievements. Over the centuries, agricultural knowledge and technology has vastly improved. Beginning in the early 20th century, agricultural productivity finally grew faster than the human population. Scientific research played a crucial role in this unprecedented breakthrough. Today, the research community is challenged to find ways of producing even more food without exceeding planetary boundaries. Fundamental questions that must be answered include:

  • How can or should scientific progress contribute to sustainable farming systems and nutrition in order to overcome or reduce the trade-offs described above?
  • What are the best synergies between the following three technology or knowledge levels? Namely, (1) high-tech innovation, such as digitalization and novel breeding methods; (2) moderate or midlevel technology, such as farm and food technology in general or the development of biocontrol and botanicals in plant protection; and (3) practical knowledge/adoption (related to agronomy, site conditions, farmer community traditions, or consumer preferences) at all points along the value chain?
  • What methodological advances in science are needed to facilitate completely viable, functioning sustainability solutions in agriculture and nutrition? What role could be played by development of methods for sustainability assessment and true cost accounting? How can researchers benefit from relevant examples of innovative research methods from other branches of science, such as swarm intelligence, post-disciplinarity, and design thinking?
  • How can the active involvement of farmers, consumers, and citizens accelerate the adoption of scientific knowledge and the transformation towards sustainable and regenerative farming and food systems?
  • Which methods of transformative learning, cooperation, and participation can be developed to deeply anchor sustainable agriculture and nutrition in our societies and make particular economic and social interests transparent?