Switzerland – The Dark Side of Small Farms

Lessons From Switzerland
As the chorus of anti-factory farming voices grows, many people are calling for a return to the “good old days” of small family farms to provide our meat, dairy products, and eggs. Having just returned from three weeks in the small alpine country of Switzerland, where family farms still prevail, I am more convinced than ever that the way forward is the complete elimination of all animal agriculture, whether small-scale or large-scale.

Switzerland, in addition to its powerful banking, pharmaceutical, and food industries (UBS, Novartis, Nestlé) has a deeply rooted small-scale farming tradition. House gardens and community gardens proliferate, and fields of grain are interspersed with forest throughout the country. Cows with clanging bells around their necks wander the summer highlands, and small-scale animal farms dotting the landscape provide the cheese for which Switzerland is famous.

Generally speaking, I found there are both positive and negative lessons we can learn from Swiss agriculture. The positive ones are the beneficent effects of hundreds of thousands of small, organic vegetable gardens and orchards. Every house seems to have a garden and fruit trees, and this strengthens the Swiss sense of caring for their land, fostering a healthy community spirit that propels Swiss people to cooperate to protect their lives and resources from pollution and exploitation. All GMOs are banned, virtually everything is recycled, and land, water, and air are safeguarded from pollution by stringent laws. Candy, soda, and junk foods are banned from schools.  Fast food is minimized to just one chain: McDonalds (which advertises that it gets its potatoes–but not its meat–from Swiss sources).

But there is also a dark side. On the surface, the small Swiss farms all look so idyllic. Hiking the wanderwegs through the mountains, hills, and dales of Switzerland, though, provided me the opportunity to look behind the curtain of the Swiss “happy cow” image. It was revolting to suddenly come upon small, dark, stinking barns where goats were haplessly confined on the hillsides, the land around cut down and barren from grazing. These unfortunate females were the source of the “gourmet delight” goat cheeses in posh stores and restaurants. Kept almost continuously pregnant, their male babies had all been killed at birth for kid gloves and other upscale leather products. I also walked by young heifers imprisoned in pens, waiting for the sperm gun that would impregnate them, and cows separated from their calves, waiting for the next milking. The calves, both male and female, are mostly sold for slaughter for the veal that is omnipresent on the menus in Swiss restaurants, or they are killed at birth for the rennet in their stomach lining that is traditionally used to coagulate cheese. I also saw deer imprisoned in pens for the venison that is similarly popular on restaurant menus.

There is virtually no true wilderness left in Switzerland. Even in the high and remote mountains there are wandering goats and cows who are someone’s property, and who will be duly slaughtered while still quite young when their production declines and it doesn’t pay to feed them the expensive hay they need in the barn in winter. Most of the Swiss forests have been cut down to grow feed-grains for livestock, and this has led to a loss of habitat for wildlife.

The metaphor of hidden exploitation echoes in eerie ways. UBS finances mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia, Novartis promotes the spread of toxic chemicals and GMO agriculture in other countries, and Nestlé is well-known to be one of the largest purveyors of junk food in the world. Swiss companies do in other countries what they would never dare attempt in Switzerland. Additionally, while Switzerland produces expensive cheese and meats that have the aura of being sustainable and “humane” for its wealthy class and for export, it imports huge amounts of inexpensive factory-farmed meat from Germany, France, eastern Europe, Africa, and South America. Because Swiss animal foods are viewed as humanely produced (there are laws banning battery cages, for example), animal food consumption is among the highest in the world. And dairy in particular is sacrosanct. There is not one vegan restaurant in the entire country. The inherent cruelty in the dairy/veal industry is well hidden, and rivers of blood and misery flow behind the clean curtain of Swiss tidiness. The Swiss have, not surprisingly, among the highest rates of osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes in the world, and obesity rates are climbing quickly. Veganism is still in its infancy in Switzerland because of the monolithic power of the dairy industry and its ubiquitous advertising, as well as the generous subsidies dairy and animal farmers receive from the government.

From the Swiss example, it’s clear that the “good old days” were filled with routine cruelty and other problems. I hope that those who advocate for humane animal foods are able to look behind the curtain and see the suffering of confined sheep, goats, cows, chickens, and other animals on small farms, whose babies, freedom, lives, and inherent purposes are systematically stolen by farmers who profit from providing foods of questionable benefit. The beckoning path to health, sustainability, compassion for animals, and world peace is through persistent grassroots vegan education and the consequent abolition of animal agriculture. Cruelty and environmental damage is endemic to imprisoning animals for food, and global markets always undermine local efforts by providing mass-produced animal foods to meet the demand for inexpensive meat and dairy products. It should be more clear than ever: reducing demand for all animal-sourced foods–whether small-scale or factory-farmed–is the key to attaining environmental, social, physical, and spiritual health.

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