The Current

Why Swiss people don't want anyone touching their emergency coffee stockpiles

Switzerland keeps 15,000 tonnes of coffee beans on reserve for emergency situations. But when the government announced earlier this year that it planned to scrap the coffee stockpiles, its citizens were not happy.

Swiss government planned to scrap coffee bean reserves — but people weren't happy

A government plan to ditch Switzerland's massive emergency reserves of coffee beans hasn't gone down well with the general population. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
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Is caffeination a basic human need?

It's a question the Swiss government has been grappling with since they announced earlier this year that they were planning to quit stockpiling coffee, declaring the drink not vital for human survival.

It's one of several basic goods Switzerland keeps on reserve in case of an emergency, along with items like flour, sugar and medicines. The government started this stockpiling system between the First and Second World Wars, as a way to prepare the landlocked nation for wars, natural disasters or epidemics.

But the announcement hasn't gone down well with the general population. The Current's interim host Laura Lynch spoke to Imogen Foulkes, the BBC's Geneva correspondent, about what happened.

How much coffee does Switzerland stockpile?

Wait for it: 15,000 tonnes. That is supposed to keep a population going for three months, should there be a coffee emergency in Switzerland.

That suggests that the Swiss drink a lot of coffee.

They do. They love it. I mean, they are up there in the top 10 ... on the list of the world's biggest coffee consumers. They consume about 8.5 [kilograms] — that's 17, 18 pounds — of coffee a year per head of population.

So then what was the response when the government announced that it was considering dropping coffee from stockpiles?

Quite a lot of concern, actually.

The government says, 'Well, you know, if we're planning for emergencies, we keep stuff that's really going to keep people alive. You know, stuff with calories in it. And coffee is not one of those.'

Freshly roasted coffee beans at H. Schwarzenbach coffee roastery in Zurich on Dec. 4, 2018. (REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann)

But ... your average Swiss person clearly, judging by the mood on the street, says, 'Well, sorry, coffee, it is essential to life. I need it.' 

People are saying, 'I need it when I get up in the morning, just the same way I need my shower. I need a coffee after lunch. I need one in the afternoon to keep me going at work. And then maybe a little espresso after dinner at night.'

They just really don't like the idea of living without it.

So what has the government decided to do now?

Well, there's such a debate. And I think, to be honest, the interest of media organizations outside Switzerland has also kicked the whole thing up the political agenda a bit. [So now] the government has said, 'Oh, you know what, we'll reconsider that coffee decision. Maybe we'll decide to keep it on the list.' 

I think there's also been some pressure from the coffee importers and producers. Don't forget, we're the home of Nestlé and Nespresso here in Switzerland. And the way these stockpiles work is not that the government has great big government warehouses. The producers and importers undertake to store thousands of tonnes themselves. And guess who pays them to do that? The government. So it's quite a good [money maker] for the coffee producers.

What else does Switzerland stockpile?

In the national stockpiles, we have things like flour, cooking oil, sugar, fuel. We have medicines, antibiotics. We have grain. We have fertilizers. 

Let's not forget, this is a neutral country that was surrounded in two world wars by countries that were fighting, and Switzerland couldn't feed itself. So it's based on that. 

But nowadays, the government says, 'But you know what? Maybe there are still some reasons to have these stockpiles. Maybe there is a big environmental disaster somewhere. Maybe there's a cyberattack that knocks out our power and we need this stuff.' 

And what's really interesting is that last year, probably, people say, because of climate change, the level of the Rhine fell so low — the river Rhine, that's landlocked Switzerland's port to the rest of the world — that they couldn't import some of the fertilizers and mineral oil that they needed. 

And they actually had to use those emergency supplies just within the last year.

The Swiss are the seventh highest coffee consumers in the world, according to the International Coffee Organization. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

How often do they tap into those stockpiles? 

Last year, and then two years ago, there was a ... global shortage of antibiotics. And some countries actually ran short, but not well-prepared Switzerland, because they had their stockpile. So they used [the stockpiles] to tide them over, until this global shortage eased.

Do the Swiss do their own personal stockpiling?

Well, you know, we're supposed to, all of us who live here. We've all got, theoretically, a space in a nuclear bunker, not necessarily in our own house, but there are communal ones. And we are all supposed to have an emergency stockpile of food and fresh water to keep us going for a week. 

Honestly, although I did a very unscientific straw poll about this, I don't know anyone who does it. 

But were there to be a global crisis, I imagine people would be getting out their government lists and thinking, 'Hmm, what should I stockpile?'

And I do remember a neighbour of mine ... 10 years ago when [there was] the swine flu epidemic — which proved not to be serious, but people thought it was at first — she did go out and fill up her stock cupboard.

Alright, Imogen, I hope you're having a coffee while you're talking to us. 

Oh, I am. I am. My seventh of the day. 


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Ines Colabrese.

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