Paths to a sustainable agricultural system

Photo: Spike Stitch/ BY NC ND

An integrated food and agricultural policy and changes in consumption patterns are holistic approaches needed to tackle emissions from agriculture.

In the Nordic countries most ammonia emissions and a significant share of greenhouse gas emissions originate from agriculture.  AirClim, together with organisations from Finland, Norway and Denmark, has analysed and compared these emissions in the region. This has resulted in the longer report “Pathways to a Nordic food system that contributes to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants” and a shorter policy brief “Paths to a sustainable agricultural system”, both financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

In terms of total emissions of greenhouse gases in each country, the share of methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture in the Nordic countries is 8 and 9 per cent respectively in Norway and Finland, whereas it is as high as 13 per cent in Sweden and 19 per cent in Denmark. If greenhouse gas emissions from land use and energy consumption related to agriculture are added, the share increases significantly and is as high as 27 per cent in Denmark.

For ammonia, livestock manure accounts for as much as 96 per cent of the total emissions in Denmark and approximately 90 per cent on average in the Nordic countries.

The report notes that the although the Nordic region is to a large extent culturally, social and economically homogenous, agricultural structures, topographic and climate conditions, land use and production figures differ significantly between the countries. For example in Norway, Sweden and Finland, a relatively small proportion (3–8%) of the total land territory is used for agricultural production, while in Denmark more than half of the territory is designated for agricultural production.

These differences make it difficult to come up with single fixes for emission reductions that will work for the whole region. But the report gives some general recommendations for societal and on-farm actions, which include:

  • Start working towards an integrated food and agricultural policy, which sufficiently takes into account the various issues and conflicts of interests in a holistic way.
  • Work to change consumption behaviour and diets, highlighting all potential benefits, e.g. environmental, health and global equality.
  • Promote agro-ecological farming methods that aim to maintain or increase the soil organic matter and limit the use of organic soils for farming, to help bring down carbon emissions from soils.
  • Research ways to increase energy efficiency in agricultural and food systems, also at farm level.
  • Put in place an adequate regulatory framework and other measures for improved manure management. Small-scale farmers may have to receive some assistance (financial and technical) in taking these measures.
  • Apply the polluter pays principle in the agricultural sector. Though there are difficulties, politicians and financial experts need to find ways to internalise the environmental costs.

The analysis also highlights some conflicts of interest that are counterproductive to an agricultural food production system with lower emissions of greenhouse gases and ammonia.

One such area is animal welfare. Short lifecycles for livestock will lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of product, however breeding for fast growth may cause health problems for animals.

Biodiversity is another issue, since grazing animals, especially on permanent grasslands, are of great importance for biodiversity and increase the potential for soil carbon sequestration. Open pastures also have cultural and aesthetic values. However it is debated whether these systems are more or less efficient when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of product. Interventions to decrease consumption of animal products could lead to less areas being grazed, if not combined with other interventions.

The economic situation for farmers is a third area of concern. Technical systems that lead to lower emissions require investments in machinery and housing. Many farmers in the Nordic countries are already struggling to survive economically. New minimum standards might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and lead to the decision to close a farm. In highly productive areas this often leads to the farm being bought by the neighbouring farm, which contributes to the trend towards ever-larger units. In less productive areas, it usually implies that agricultural land will be converted into forest.

These issues, the report suggests, are especially important for further research, so that balanced policy interventions can be developed.  

Kajsa Pira

The report “Pathways to a Nordic food system that contributes to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants” and the policy brief "Paths to a sustainable agricultural system"


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