The Swiss are proud of their cheese, and most of the cheese they eat are local varieties such as Gruyère, Emmental and other hard cheeses from the milk of happy cows that are famous all over the world. The Swiss also eat a lot of cheese: more than 50 pounds per person per year, compared to about 40 pounds per person in the United States.

“Cheese is part of our identity,” said Daniel Koller, director of Swissmilk, the Swiss dairy association. That is why one of Mr. Koller’s colleagues, the president of the association, created a storm this month when he told a Swiss newspaper that Switzerland is on track to import more cheese than it exports this year, which he called “absurd economically, socially and environmentally.”

In fact, the Swiss cheese trade balance has been declining for decades, and especially since the liberalization of the market in 2007, which allowed the country to trade with the European Union without tariffs or quotas in both directions. Switzerland now exports about 40 percent of the cheese it produces, according to industry estimates.

But in each of the first five months of this year, Switzerland imported more cheese by weight than it sold abroad, according to customs data. In part, that’s because the Swiss have developed a taste for foreign cheeses, with local varieties accounting for 64 percent of consumption last year, down from 77 percent in 2007, according to Swissmilk.

The number of dairy farmers in Switzerland has declined in recent decades, with a drop of more than half over the past 25 years, Mr Koller said. Besides that, farming operations in Switzerland are small: The average herd size is about 27 cows, Mr. Koller said, and dairy farms with more than 100 cows are rare.

Although an influx of foreign cheese may challenge notions of Swiss national identity, economists say there is no need to panic. Swiss producers have become more specialized in recent years, and the cheeses they export tend to be the higher-value varieties, such as Gruyère. Imports are cheaper – and milder – and mostly come from France. (What is called “Swiss cheese” in the US is an American reproduction of Swiss hard cheeses, known — of course — for their signature holes.)

Not all the cheese that is imported into Switzerland is consumed there either. A large part of the cheese and curd brought into the country is refined in Switzerland and then exported.

“The trade difference in cheese itself is not a big thing to worry about,” said Martin Mosler, an economist at IWP, an economic policy institute at the University of Lucerne. “We’re better than most of the world at premium stuff,” he said. Switzerland continues to have a healthy trade surplus in cheese in terms of financial value: On average, Swiss cheese exports fetch about 10 Swiss francs per kilogram (about $11.60), compared to about six Swiss francs per kilogram paid for imports.

Inflation also played a role in the Swiss cheese trade. While 2021 was a record year for Swiss exports, last year saw a decline as Switzerland’s biggest market, Germany, was hit hard by inflation, squeezing buyers’ budgets. The strong Swiss franc has also made cheese more expensive in Germany.

“These consumers are very price sensitive,” Mr. Mosler said.

On the other hand, the strong franc has made imports cheaper, and increased imports can be good for Swiss consumers, Mr. Mosler said. People want more choice for lower prices and “that’s great for Switzerland itself,” he said.

But Swiss farmers who produce cheaper cheeses may be affected by the changing trade balance.

Milk prices in Switzerland have risen in recent years, including milk that is used in cheese, according to Robert Finger, a professor at ETH Zurich, university. It’s still not “too bad”, but he acknowledged that the number of farms has continued to decline in Switzerland, as in the rest of Europe. That was not strongly related to higher imports, Mr. Finger said, but was largely driven by other economic and social developments.

The United States has seen a similar trend, with a loss of about half of its dairy farmers between 1997 and 2017, driven in part by consolidation of the food system, the disappearance of many small family farms and lower milk prices around the world, said Hannah Tremblay, policy and advocacy manager at Farm Aid, an agricultural nonprofit.

Mr Koller, the director at Swissmilk, said it was important to continue producing Swiss cheese for Swiss consumers. One of the goals of his organization is to encourage people to buy local products that adhere to Switzerland’s high quality and environmental standards.

But, tastes aside, he added that the quality and standards in European Union countries are often not very different from those in Switzerland. “It doesn’t make sense to just close borders for cheese,” Mr. Mosler said.

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