Carrot and stick
We hope you enjoyed your Easter break. Perhaps it was a time of increased consumption of chocolate. And possibly you enjoyed your Easter eggs with a little much salt. You might even have decided to add some mayonnaise. It was a holiday after all. But, from a public health point of view, Easter extravagance is not ideal. Sugar and salt are key targets of preventive public health campaigns. One thing is clear: over-consumption of sugar and salt is bad for your health. However, any political interventions need to take into account people's freedom and personal responsibility. On the business side, the "Action for a Moderate Prevention" of the trade association advocates a state restraint. The organization recently published an article summing up its position on public health prevention campaigns against sugar, salt and fat. With regard to prevention policy, the article discusses the instrumentalization of producers and the infantilization of consumers. Who wants a legal guardian anyway? According to the etymological dictionary, the word "guardian" comes from the Old French for "keeper" and "custodian". Guardianship is paternalism at its finest, a combination of power and protection. The "ward" must comply, but the guardian has their best interests in mind. And so, in the case of state prevention policy, guardianship can extend to the Easter bunny and the Easter egg.
After all, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and government health authorities have our best interests at heart when they try to control our consumption. And you can't argue with facts. The market economy is grounded on informed consumer decisions. Promoting nutrition literacy is a worthy goal. But the authorities rarely stop at just providing information. They are always looking for ways and means to ensure consumers and production companies comply with their well-intentioned stipulations. The state guardian wants to prevail. Proposals range from regulations for packaging to new taxes and bans. The aim is to steer our behavior in the "right" direction.
Sugar provides one good example of these discussions. If consumed in excessive quantities, sugar is harmful to our health. That's a fact. The call for people to reduce their sugar consumption is, at its core, a reasonable one, and there are clearly good intentions behind it, but the government's targeting of sugar doesn't leave a sweet taste in your mouth. The SonntagsZeitung made a series of reports on this. We have summarized these in a media review. There are plans to remove the tiger from breakfast cereal packaging. Chocolate Santas are to be sold without their faces, like in Chile, because the authorities are afraid that smiling Santas and animal mascots could entice people to consume sugar. Even Easter bunnies could fall victim to the government's paternalistic micromanagement in the future.
Advertising is an easy prey. In Germany, the planned restrictions on advertising for sugary products are to be stricter than for erotic and gambling advertising. What is more, in Switzerland, sugar beet farming is dragged through the mud again and again. Why, critics argue, should the production of an unhealthy food receive subsidies? This criticism may have good intentions, but sugar is no different from other substances: the dose makes the poison. Condemning sugar across the board misses the point.
Sugar is a reliable source of energy and preserves food, as we know from jam-making. Switzerland even has mandatory sugar stocks for times of crisis. Sugar beet is valuable to many farmers as an intercrop in their crop rotation. This is because sugar beet penetrates the deeper layers of soil with its taproots and loosens them. Beet cultivation also reduces the risk of fungal diseases in subsequent cereal crops. Against this background, a minimum level of self-sufficiency and the preservation of cultivation competence in sugar is justifiable. At the same time, the government's fight against sugar alongside its promotion of sugar farming is reminiscent of the story of the citizens of Schilda. Claudia Wirz highlighted this contradiction in an NZZ column.
The state's role is to create a liberal framework. But if the government threatens its producers with too strict regulations, "voluntary measures" are not so voluntary anymore. As Goethe put it in his famous poem "Erlkönig": "And if you don't come willingly, I'll use force." The micromanagement of state paternalism is becoming increasingly creative. The Swiss legal system has a constitution, law and ordinances. The administration also uses action plans, which allow politicians to put their ideas in motion without going through the tedious route of getting them approved in parliament and can even defy popular opinion. Thus, the "Green Economy Action Plan" lives on, even though the corresponding "Green Economy" initiative was clearly rejected by the people and the cantons in 2016 with 64 % no votes. Citizens' assemblies are also called upon to legitimize government decisions instead of relying on the established but more onerous instruments of democratic participation.
If we want to keep enjoying Easter and our daily diets in the future, despite increasingly limited resources, we need innovation from businesses and farmers. And we need an environment that enables creativity. Science is already searching for the egg of the future, but it is doubtful whether it will be ready in time for next Easter. Neither plant-based scrambled eggs nor hard “boiled” eggs from Migros without the shell are suitable for the Swiss tradition of egg tapping. Despite all our innovations, we still need chickens to have a happy Easter. And it's up to you how much sugar or salt you want to add to your eggs and Easter cookies.
Your swiss-food editorial team