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Salt: a raw material

Logo https://stories.swissinfo.ch/salt-a-raw-material

Introduction


Journey into the production of one of the world's most consumed commodities.    


Authors: 
Olivier Pauchard, text
Thomas Kern, images
Céline Stegmüller, support video 

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      It is a well-known fact that Switzerland is a country with few raw materials. To thrive economically, it has always had to rely more on the entrepreneurial skills and resourcefulness of its inhabitants than on underground riches.

      But few raw materials does not mean none at all. Swiss ground does yield some treasures, and even in abundance. One of these is salt. After depending on other countries for centuries for its supplies, Switzerland now produces enough salt to cover almost all its own needs.

      Plentiful and cheap, salt is today a common commodity that usually receives little attention. And yet, long a rather scarce product, it was once at the heart of extensive trade and even smuggling. The different human activities linked to salt have left traces that are of interest to history and heritage lovers today, and that the tourism sector is keen to promote.

      From a health point of view, salt plays two conflicting roles. It is essential to life; yet, if consumed in excess, it is also a “silent killer”. In Switzerland, as elsewhere, efforts are under way to limit its consumption, even though the iodine added to table salt has helped eradicate a disease that was long endemic to some alpine areas.

      The subject of salt is a fascinating one. We invite you to join us on a journey of discovery.
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      Salt: a raw material

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      Switzerland’s subsoil is, on the whole, rather poor in raw materials. Salt is a notable exception, however. There is enough of it around to meet the population’s needs for many generations to come.

      Swiss salt was formed some 200 million years ago, after a Triassic ocean dried up. Following folding movements in the earth’s surface, the salt became trapped in the bowels of the earth, sometimes several hundred metres deep. There are thus pockets of salt on the Swiss central plateau and in the Jura mountains, and salt seams in the Alps.
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      Salt was first mined in Switzerland in the 16th century near Bex, in the Pre-Alps of Vaud canton. According to legend, the deposit was discovered by a young goatherd, who noticed that his goats were particularly fond of the salty water from a nearby spring.

      Today, Swiss salt is extracted at three sites: the saltworks in Schweizerhalle (canton of Basel Country), Riburg (Aargau) and Bex (Vaud). The Schweizerhalle site is the largest in terms of the number of people working there, with around 130 employees, while Riburg has the highest production output (up to 1,100 tonnes of salt a day).
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      Demand for salt varies greatly from one year to the next. In the years since the turn of the century, a peak was recorded in 2010, when 641,493 tonnes of salt were needed. At the other end of the scale, in 2007 only 354,303 tonnes were required.

      Such disparities might seem surprising, but the explanation is quite simple. As about half of the salt produced is used to keep roads clear of snow and ice, total production fluctuates greatly depending on the severity of the winter. In 2019, the three sites produced 477,325 tonnes of salt and had 222,283 tonnes in reserve.

      Also last year, 500,980 tonnes of salt were sold in all. Contrary to what one might expect, table salt represented only a small proportion of the overall amount.
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      These days the production of salt is largely automated. But there was a time, not so long ago, when it took many hands and a lot of hard work to extract it.

      This vintage sequence was shot by Swiss public television in the Bex salt mines in May 1963.

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      Switzerland sets great store by economic liberalism. Salt is an exception to this, however, as its production and marketing are under a state monopoly, with the cantons holding sovereign rights.

      The sector is governed by a single entity, Swiss Saltworks. Covering the three production sites, this public company is owned by the 26 cantons and the Principality of Liechtenstein, and applies the salt rights on their behalf.

      Concretely, this monopoly means that it is on the whole not possible to freely import and market foreign salt in Switzerland. This rule is however no longer as strictly applied as in the past, and import regulations have been substantially liberalized in recent years.

      Private individuals may freely import up to 50kg of table salt a year for their personal consumption. For larger amounts, an import authorization must be obtained from Swiss Saltworks, which will only grant it if the imported salt does not exist within its own product range (for example, fleur de sel of specific origin which is not available from Swiss Saltworks).

      Switzerland authorizes up to 6,000kg of salt per importer, per year and per product type, subject to a flat-rate tax of CHF100 ($112.6) for amounts up to 500kg and CHF150 francs for amounts between 500kg and 6,000kg.

      The cantons still stand by their salt sovereignty. Among the reasons given for maintaining the monopoly, they cite Switzerland’s self-sufficiency in terms of supply, price stability thanks to this system, the guarantee of environmentally friendly production and the possibility of adding fluoride and iodine to the salt.


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      Salt and health: when Janus ends up on our plates

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      We generally pay little attention to the salt we ingest. Yet this product, which has become so commonplace, is of fundamental importance. For better and for worse…

      For better, because salt has been one of the building blocks of life since the dawn of time, essential for all living things. It also helps combat certain health conditions.

      But also for worse, as too much salt causes high blood pressure, and therefore cardiovascular disease.

      “From being a vital source of nutrition, salt has also become a kind of enemy number one since the second half of the 20th century. It really is a two-faced Janus. Without salt we die; but with too much salt, we also die,” sums up doctor and historian Vincent Barras.


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      The benefits of water have been known since time immemorial. Already in Roman times, sites such as Baden (Aquae Helveticae), St Moritz and Yverdon-les-Bains were renowned spa resorts.

      “These baths were exploited for their salt content, not just sodium chloride, but also other mineral salts,” Vincent Barras explains. “Salt was believed to cure many ailments. You didn’t just immerse yourself in the water, you also drank it. People took the waters all over Switzerland, although different spas had different properties. For example, water rich in sulphur was recommended for skin diseases.”

      Thermalism had its heyday in the 19th century. Around 1860, Bern canton alone had 73 thermal spas. And in 1870, the Federal Statistical Office listed 610 thermal and mineral springs.

      The golden years ended, however, in the first half of the 20th century. Spa resorts fell on hard times as a result of the two world wars, which kept customers away, as well as medical advances and new trends in tourism.

      The situation has been looking up over the past few decades, however. Medical thermalism has lost none of its draw, and the spa industry has managed to ride the wave of “wellness” and stress management.
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      For centuries, some alpine communities suffered from an unknown disease, stemming, as was later discovered, from a dietary deficiency in iodine. The most obvious symptoms included goitre and mental retardation, which meant that people with this condition were often referred to as “cretins”, or idiots, of the Alps.

      Valais canton was particularly affected by this scourge; so much so that it became an object of interest to tourists, and “cretinism” was specifically associated with Valais in the famous Encyclopédie by Diderot and d'Alembert.

      Nowadays, much of the table salt sold in Switzerland contains added iodine, as well as fluoride to combat tooth decay.

      It should be noted that this is a peculiarly Swiss measure. In other countries, such as France, adding elements to foodstuffs in this way is not permitted by law.

      Even in Switzerland, despite the positive effects observed, some people now question the need to add iodine to salt.

      “Nowadays, this measure is not so relevant, as iodine is available from other food sources. Our diet has become infinitely more varied; for example, we now have much greater access to saltwater fish. Iodine can also have adverse effects, and the salt itself can be very harmful in some cases. Today, iodizing salt would not necessarily be adopted as a solution,” comments Vincent Barras.


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      Some areas of the canton of Valais were particularly hard hit by cretinism.

      But the canton was in the end the source of the solution.

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      The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends absorbing no more than five grams of salt a day, which is around one teaspoon. Consuming more can entail serious health risks.

      “The main harm caused by salt is high blood pressure. Epidemiologists have demonstrated the link between salt content and high blood pressure, which is a major contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death in Switzerland,” explains Vincent Barras.

      Figures from the Federal Statistical Office do indeed show that cardiovascular disease is by far the main cause of death in Switzerland, together with cancer. The WHO’s recommendations are echoed by Swiss medical experts. The Swiss Medical Review states, for example, that reducing salt consumption is “an important public health measure”.

      Average salt consumption in Switzerland is nine grams a day, almost twice the recommended amount. A strategy for reducing consumption has therefore been drawn up, under the auspices of the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO). Established in 2013, this Salt Strategy has now been integrated into the Swiss Nutrition Strategy 2017–2024. The goal is to reduce consumption to eight grams in the medium term and below the critical five-gram threshold in the long term.

      To achieve this, the authorities still rely on voluntary action. They intend to raise public awareness of the problem and engage in dialogue with the food industry so that it reduces the salt content in processed foods.

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      A history rich in salt

      Today, salt is an abundant and commonplace commodity. For centuries, though, it was rare and expensive. People went to great lengths to obtain this precious condiment.

      This has left traces that are of interest both to history lovers and to the tourism sector.
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      For many centuries, Switzerland lacked salt and its inhabitants had to import it from other lands.

      In Roman times, salt came mainly from the Mediterranean basin. It was subsequently also brought in from the French Jura, where there is evidence of salt production going back to the Neolithic era.

      France was long the main purveyor of salt to western Switzerland. Eastern and southern Switzerland got their supplies from other neighbouring regions.

      “The choice of supplier depended on the price, quality and distance, which influenced the price,” explains historian Christian Schülé. Political circumstances also played a role; there was such a thing as salt diplomacy. For instance, the Treaty of Fribourg of 1516, which established a perpetual peace between the Swiss Confederation and the Kingdom of France, contained a clause on salt. Some deliveries were agreed on in diplomatic treaties and others simply by trade agreements.”

      Salt finally started to be mined in Switzerland from the 16th century, in the Bex region, which was also referred to as the “Aigle government’s salt mountain”, and was under Bernese control. But production levels were never high enough, not even for the Republic of Bern’s own needs, hence the need to keep importing salt.

      In the 19th century, drilling led to the discovery of new deposits in the Basel region. “This was a complete game-changer, as now a lot of salt could be produced. The cantons could become self-reliant and stop importing,” explains Christian Schülé.
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      For centuries, most of the salt used in Switzerland came from the Franche-Comté region of eastern France.

      “There was a thriving trade,” says historian Christian Schülé. “Tonnes and tonnes of salt were transported from France to Switzerland. Yverdon acted as a hub. There, the salt was centralized before continuing its journey towards Bern and other Swiss cantons. There were huge warehouses. The city of Zurich even had its own depot there at one time.”

      Ever since Switzerland became self-sufficient in salt in the 19th century, the convoys have deserted this salt route. But its memory lingers on. The Via Salina is now one of Switzerland’s twelve cultural routes.

      The itinerary runs from the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans (Franche-Comté) to Bern. Along the way, visitors can discover several UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites. On the Swiss section of the route, relatively few visible traces of this trade remain. However, one can still see the rutted tracks used by the convoys to negotiate the steep inclines of the Jura mountains.

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      Gallery: Production

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      Gallery: Thermal

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      Gallery: Salt as a tourist attraction

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      Kippel, canton du Valais. Un homme prie tandis que passent les grenadiers en costume historique lors de la procession de la Fête-Dieu. (Keystone)
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      Messe en plein air à Flüeli Ranft, dans le canton d'Obwald. Cette vallée est la patrie de Nicolas de Flue (1417-1487), saint patron de la Suisse. (Keystone)
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      En Appenzell (Suisse orientale), les femmes défilent en costume traditionnel pour la Fête-Dieu. (Keystone)
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      La procession de la Fête-Dieu réunit souvent d'anciens Gardes suisses du Pape, comme ici à Savièse, dans le canton du Valais. (pixsil)
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      La Bible protestante de Zurich a été révisée récemment. En 1531, c'est ici qu'est parue la première Bible complète en allemand. La dernière version, sous sa couverture vivement colorée, a demandé 23 ans de travail. (Keystone)
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      Les cérémonies religieuses protestantes sont souvent plus austères que les catholiques, comme on le voit dans «Der Schuß von der Kanzel», film suisse de 1942. (RDB)
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      Mais si le protestantisme manque de couleurs, il se distingue parfois par son avant-gardisme, comme ici, lors de la bénédiction du premier mariage homosexuel en 1995. (Keystone)
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      Après des siècles de conflits religieux, l'heure est à l'œcuménisme. Lors de la récente ouverture du tunnel ferroviaire du Lötschberg, la bénédiction est venue du pasteur Samuel Lutz et de l'évêque Norbert Brunner. (Keystone)
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      Un moine devant le temple bouddhiste thaï de Gretzenbach, dans le canton de Soleure. (RDB)
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      C'est à Berne que s'est ouvert en 1955 le premier temple mormon d'Europe. Aujourd'hui, on croise fréquemment de jeunes missionnaires mormons dans les villes suisses. (Keystone)
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      Uriella, leader de la secte Fiat Lux, en prière en 1992. Bien des experts considèrent la Suisse comme un paradis des sectes. (RDB)
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      Les juifs ne sont qu'une toute petite minorité en Suisse, vivant pour la plupart dans les villes comme Genève et Zurich, qui ont quelques écoles juives. (Keystone)
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      Centre culturel bosniaque de Zofingue, dans le canton d'Argovie: les femmes prient à part des hommes. Les deux plus grandes mosquées de Suisse sont à Genève et à Zurich. (Keystone)
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      Langenthal, près de Berne, la capitale, abrite le premier temple sikh d'Europe. (RDB)
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      Depuis l'arrivée des premiers requérants d'asile dans les année 80, les Tamouls du Sri Lanka ont continué de pratiquer leur religion. A Lausanne, un parking souterrain a été converti en temple hindou. (RDB)
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