Photo: / Susy Morris CC BY-NC

Sustainably feeding the Nordics

It is possible to feed 37 million in the Nordic countries on food mostly produced within the region using organic practices. This would come with a significant reduction in the environmental footprint from food consumption.

One year ago, Acid News (AN1/17) presented the preliminary results of the report “Future Nordic Diets”, which was finally published in December 2017.

The report describes two scenarios for Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden (referred to here as “the Nordic countries”): one in which the majority of food is produced within the region using organic farming practices, and the other in which livestock is mainly fed on grass and by-products not suitable for human consumption:

In the first scenario, known as “sufficiency” (SY), the number of ruminants was limited to the minimum needed to graze all semi-natural pastures, while monogastric animals (poultry, pigs and aquaculture fish) were limited to available food processing by-products.

In the second scenario, known as “efficiency” (EY), the number of ruminants was increased to utilise all ley grown in organic crop rotation, and by-product feed for monogastric animals was supplemented with some feed crops grown on arable land. This enabled more food to be produced from Nordic agriculture, thus feeding a larger population.

The scenarios are described in more detail in figure 1.

The results show that the scenarios would be able to produce enough nutritious food for 31 (SY) and 37 (EY) million people respectively in the Nordic countries. The scenarios would thus be able to support the projected population in 2030, albeit with changes in consumption patterns. Consumption of meat decreased by 90 per cent (SY) and 81 per cent (EY) from current levels and was substituted by cereals, legumes and vegetable oil.

Estimates of current greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural production of  food consumed in the Nordic countries range between 1,310 and 1,940 kg CO2-eq per person per year. The emissions from SY and EY scenario diets are significantly lower, giving rise to 360 kg and 480 kg CO2-eq per person per year respectively (figure 2). Emissions in the SY scenario are lower because fewer livestock result in lower methane emissions and more carbon is stored when most of the ley is left on the fields.

On the other hand, the potential for reducing eutrophication was higher for the EY scenario than for SY, primarily because the EY scenario provided more diets without using more arable land. Leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus from arable soils accounted for roughly two-thirds of the diet’s total eutrophication potential. The remaining third was mainly caused by ammonia emissions into the air from manure management, and for the SY scenario also by ammonia from non-harvested ley residues.

Ammonia was also the main contributor to acidification in the scenario diets, accounting for 97 percent of total acidification potential. Because the SY scenario had fewer animals than the EY it also resulted in less ammonia emissions from manure. This was however counterbalanced by increased emissions from crop residues due to extensive areas of ley being used for green manure in the SY scenario.

The total of the reported ammonia emissions from agriculture and agricultural land use to the UNECE from the four countries was 174 thousand tonnes in 2014. The total ammonia emissions under the scenarios were 74 thousand tonnes (SY) and 90 thousand tonnes (EY), though they are not directly comparable since they also include ammonia emissions from harvest residue.

The present study indicated a net sequestration of carbon in soils for the SY scenario and net carbon emissions for the EY scenario. However, the modelled carbon stock changes in this study did not take into account any increased allocation of biomass to roots, which may lead to an underestimation of the actual potential to sequester carbon in arable soils in the scenarios.

Changes in carbon stock were also assessed for the two scenarios. But because of limitations in the model used this was only done for Sweden. The results show a net sequestration of carbon in soils for the SY scenario and net carbon emissions for the EY scenario. Carbon sequestration figures should always be treated with caution. But these results indicate that a transition to organic farming of the type we have today is not enough to achieve the requirements of the Paris Agreement – that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission sources and sinks are balanced by the second half of this century. To make this possible we will need other types of actions and management methods.

One of the weaknesses of the study is that both scenarios showed deficits in the soil nutrient balances, which need to be compensated by further N and P inputs to arable soils. This could partly be alleviated by recovering nutrients present in human excreta, but other sources would also be needed for the long-term sustainability of the farming systems. The closing of nutrient cycles is an issue that needs further work.

Although there are issues to resolve, the report shows that a more extensive approach to agriculture combined with altered eating patterns has the potential to be an important building stone in developing a sustainable food system in the Nordic countries.

Kajsa Pira

Future Nordic Diets – exploring ways to sustainably feed the Nordic countries

Figure 1.

1The amount of semi-natural pastures available for grazing sets a limit on the number of ruminants needed to keep these areas grazed. The ruminants provide meat and dairy products for the diets.

2a Arable land was allocated to produce most of the plant-based food in the diets. Food processing generates byproducts that were used to supplement the ruminant feed and feed monogastric animals (poultry, pigs and aquaculture fish). The monogastric animals provide additional meat, eggs and fish to the diets.

2b To compensate for a reduced consumption of meat and other animal products, additional arable land was allocated to grow supplementary plant-based food (legumes, cereals and vegetable oil).

3 To provide green manure and pest control, ley was grown for at least two years in a six-year crop cycle. All crops except greenhouse horticulture and fruit orchards were grown in a crop rotation that included ley.

3a Some ley was allocated to provide winter feed for ruminants and pasture for dairy cows that were assumed to be able to graze semi-natural pastures only to a limited extent.

3b Slaughter and food waste, manure and, to some extent, straw were used to produce bioenergy for heat, electricity and fuel use on the farms. If additional energy was needed, ley was harvested to produce bioenergy. The digestate was returned to the soils as organic fertilizer.

3c Ley that was not used for 3a or 3b was not harvested in scenario SY. In scenario EY this land was used to provide more pasture and winter feed for a larger number of ruminants.

4 In the EY scenario, Norwegian outfield areas were also included because of their importance in Norway’s animal husbandry. This provided additional pasture for ruminants, especially sheep.

5 Some plant-based food (tropical fruits, nuts, tea and coffee) was imported and included in the diets.

6 A global “fair share” of wild-caught fish was included in the diets.

Figure 2. Estimated annual Global Warming Potential (GWP100), Eutrophication Potential (EP) and  Acidification Potential (AP) from agricultural production and fisheries fuel consumption for the SY (thin bars) and EY (thick bars) scenario diets. The impacts are divided between imports (grey), crop production (blue), livestock production and manure management (orange), energy use (black) and bioenergy production (white). Only GWP100 was estimated for the imported products. The total impacts  are largely dependent on the total number of people who could be fed in the different case countries, leading for example to relatively high emissions from the Danish scenarios, since it would be possible to feed substantially more people from Danish resources than the current number of inhabitants


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