Hans Vontobel Award for Agronomy goes to ETH study on "local food"
By 2040, our planet will be home to over 9 billion people. Our most basic need will also be our greatest challenge: How can we ensure that the food resources of the earth will be sufficient for everyone?
Dr. Maja Baumann, great-granddaughter of company founder Jakob Vontobel, and Dr. Emilia Schmitt, winner of the Hans Vontobel Award for Agronomy. © Video: Vontobel 2018.
The Hans Vontobel Award recognizes doctoral theses that document outstanding findings in the agricultural sciences. They provide crucial impulses in their area of expertise and improve the chance that the agricultural economy can keep up with the food requirements of a growing world population.
When sustainability still required a pioneering spirit
Hans Vontobel, who launched the award 30 years ago, was aware that the more sustainable the agricultural sector is, the more we will benefit from its products in the long term. And by "we" he not only had human beings in mind, but the environment as a whole.
Over the course of the past few years, the theses submitted have taken a closer and closer look at issues concerning sustainability. How can the use of fertilizers or pesticides be reduced? How can we productively cultivate the soil over many years? Researchers have sought new cultivation methods, and studied plants, seedlings and animal husbandry with a view to meeting such demands. The short-term goal of maximizing productivity has moved into the background.
Focus 2018: How close do products "from the region" come to the ideal of sustainability?
In her 2018 award-winning dissertation, Emilia Schmitt takes a critical look at locally produced products, especially Swiss cheeses bearing labels such as "from the region" or "AOP" (appellation d'origine protégée). She concludes that the true value of local products cannot be measured only in terms of the distance from where they were produced. Equally important is the know-how, which is only lived and transmitted locally in this specialized form, or social criteria such as the geographical identity that characterizes a product. In that sense, the classical perception we have of a product being "from the region" is too narrow.
On the other hand, Schmitt continues, the net effect on sustainability of local production is influenced by far more factors than merely the work that is done locally. In an empirical part of her thesis, Schmitt compares products from Switzerland with corresponding products from England or France. Her conclusion is an attention-getter: Unlike the finished products themselves, many upstream raw materials, such as the feed for the cows whose milk is processed locally, come from much further away. In the case of Swiss cheese production, South Africa is an important supplier of raw materials.
In the future, people concerned about taking local production seriously will need to look more closely at the aggregate of the distances to be added up when taking the entire value chain in consideration. The slogan "the more local, the better" is thus problematic, as long as imported products outperform their domestic products in terms of sustainability.
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