Switzerland, an unknown country

How much land in Switzerland do you estimate is used as grassland? I am not asking this question to test your knowledge. Rather, I am interested in the meadows and pastures. If you read on, you may well gain a new perspective on Switzerland (or receive confirmation of what you already know).

Daniel Flückiger

In agricultural circles, Switzerland has the reputation of being a “grassland” on the whole. Many land areas in Switzerland are so steep that they are most suitable for use as meadows or pastures. If vegetables were grown there, too much land would wash away or slide downhill. In some regions characterised by a cool, harsh climate, no crop plants flourish, only grass. And finally, with arable land it is important to observe the principle of crop rotation and let land lie fallow for a couple of years, to enable humus to build up again. Ever since the 18th century, Switzerland has been one of the countries where science has dealt in most depth with grasses and their use in agriculture.

Do we use too much land as grassland in Switzerland? This view is held in certain circles, for example vegans. And this is precisely why suckler cow husbandry is sometimes criticised. The idea is that the land on which your cows graze would be better used directly for growing food like cereals or potatoes.


How should we use the alpine pastures, if not for ruminants? (Photo: Beef Cattle Switzerland)

Land loss over 24 years in the Canton of Lucerne

To be sure, in Switzerland a large share of land that is suitable for farming is used for that purpose. The Federal Government promotes farming by means of planting premiums. A look at national land use statistics shows that open cropland declined by 29,516 ha from 1979/85 to 2004/09. However, the figures also show that this had nothing to do with meadows or pastures, as they shrank more than open cropland during the same period. What increased were settlement areas, woods and shrubs. Over a 24-year period, arable land, meadows and pastures equalling the total amount of utilised agricultural land in the Canton of Lucerne were either built over or overgrown by bushes and forests.

Thus, the real threat to the cultivation of vegetable food in Switzerland is not animal husbandry but rather increasing encroachment on agricultural land. Cattle grazing on grassland is also affected by this tendency whereby agricultural land is abandoned owing to economic pressure. In peripheral regions in particular, some meadows or pastures are no longer in use.

Doing nothing also burdens the environment

What happens on such land areas that are no longer in use? Does a species-rich, ecologically valuable mixed forest grow up? Usually not, because competing undergrowth like green alder proliferates, crowding out trees. Every year in Switzerland, an area amounting to 30-40 average-sized farms is overgrown by green alder.

Studies have shown that, compared to extensive pastures, green alder stands feature less biodiversity and higher emissions of nitrous oxide, ammonia and nitrates. Only methane levels fall when grazing stops. This being so, careful, skilled grazing makes more sense than letting grassland become overgrown. Precisely alpine meadows are characterised by their high biodiversity.

In green alder stands, nitrate and nitrous oxide emissions are higher than in extensive grassland.

(Grafik: Tobias Bühlmann)

How important are ruminants for our food supply?

If we stopped using the meadows and pastures in Switzerland, we would have to find other ways to produce the food grown on these areas. What kind of volumes are we talking about? Available statistics provide some clues. When it comes to feeding the Swiss population, milk and meat from ruminants account for some 18% of energy consumption and 30% of protein consumption. Here, it should be noted that Switzerland’s net degree of self-sufficiency stands at some 50% for energy and nearly 70% for protein. Without the milk and meat from ruminants, the degree of energy self-sufficiency would drop from around 50% to 32%, while the degree of protein self-sufficiency would decline from 70 to 40%.

If grassland were no longer used agriculturally, Switzerland would in any case have to import more foodstuffs than today, at a time when less and less land is available for farming.

The shared of utilised agricultural land

But let’s come back to the question we asked at the beginning: how much land in Switzerland do you estimate is used as grassland? Is it one-third of the land used for farming or mountain farming? Two-thirds? We put this question to visitors at one of our events. The vast majority guessed one-third. At least according to the majority principle, that was a good answer. However, let’s take a look at the official land use statistics (source: Agristat/BfS):

Land use


Area in hectares



Arable land (incl. some 125,000 ha of artificial meadows)





Special crops





Natural meadows used as agricultural land





Alpine meadows and pastures










In all, there are some 1.15 million ha of grassland, or 78% of the total land used for farming and mountain farming. Incidentally, the figures are from the land use statistics for 2004/09, because the figures for 2013/18 have not yet been published for all cantons.

The next time you take a stroll, go hiking or ride a bike, perhaps you will pay more attention to the meadows and pastures. They are an important and valuable part of Switzerland.

You can find out more about the green alder problem from the “green alder” fact sheet published by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences.