Photo: Annika Lund Gade

Towards climate-friendly food production

We need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and nitrogen from what we eat. Nordic farmers and food producers show how it can be done in practice.

A transition to more plant-based food production combined with less intensive livestock rearing would reduce the climate and nitrogen footprint from our farms. A new report “Nordic Food Transition – Low emission opportunities in agriculture”, by AirClim, Green Transition Denmark and The Finnish Society for Nature and Environment, presents eight initiatives in Sweden and Denmark, that are considered forerunners on the way towards a more sustainable food system.

Growing more protein-rich crops aimed for human consumption is key. Today, much of the plant-based food is based on imported ingredients, such as soy. But it does not have to be that way. Five of the initiatives covered in the study either grow crops rich in proteins like, peas, beans and quinoa or process domestically grown legumes to products like mince, nuggets and textured protein.

Despite a relatively large production of peas and field beans in Sweden and Denmark, a very small part goes to human consumption. The most obvious reason is the lower price of the imported legumes and the fact that there are established supply chains for these.

The legume growers in the study tells about several obstacles they face. To begin with finding seeds for the right varieties that work in our climate can be challenging. At Torsåker farm they wanted to grow sweet lupin and grey pea. But seeds were not possible to find in Sweden. Instead, the lupin seeds were recovered through German contacts and grey pea seeds were found at Latvia’s university of agriculture.

Since there is no tradition to growing many of these crops the farmer must develop cultivation methods that work. There is no advisory service to rely on. One example is Fagraslätt that have tried to grow lentils. Lentils do not compete well with weed, so they are cultivated together with oat; to do so you need to know which ratio between the two crops works best. You also need to know what technique is better to clean and separate the lentils from the oat.

In the report we call for the need of more research and development in protein crops. They compare with the production of cereals have been refined over the years. Similar efforts to optimize methods and varieties needs to be done for different protein crops aimed for human consumption. There are also challenges that are specific for these crops, e.g. legumes have a relatively long development time. Varieties that allow for earlier harvesting would reduce the risk of crop failure and may push the limit of legume production further northward.

In the interviews with farmers, it also clear that these types of difficulties with more untried crops also comes with a greater financial risk for the individual farmer. Society could bear some of that risk, by at an initial phase provide economic support to protein crops aimed for human consumption.

To make it profitable to grow protein crops, the products must also find their way to the market. The report shows many different examples. In the case of Fagraslätt farm, the dried legumes are cleaned and packed on the farm and sold directly to consumers and to stores, restaurants, and to a specialized wholesaler. Another case is a partnership between a large grocery chain and two farms, were the final product is frozen pea nuggets. The growers have through this collaboration a guaranteed outlet for the crops at an agreed price.

The food industry and retailers could take a greater responsibility to initiate these types of collaborations with primary producers. Through direct contact farmers, they can convey what quality of the produce is required for processing or sale to the end consumer. These types of contacts could be encouraged by governments by supporting network and alliance building activities between stakeholders.

In the report we also state the need for infrastructure that enables the processing of legumes and other protein crops. The company Organic Plant Protein produce texturized plant protein from pea and faba bean. They need to have access to a protein mill were pulses are grinded to a flour, but there is none in Denmark. Instead, they have to send the legumes to a mill in Norway and then back again for the final processing. Nor does Sweden have a protein mill. In Finland there is one facility for faba beans, nut none for peas. The establishment of domestic facilities for grinding legumes would fill an important gap in the supply chain, since the protein-rich flour could be used in several ways by the food industry.

Other gaps exist, especially at the processing stage. It can be boiling and conserving of legumes, centralised drying, sorting, and packing, or extrusion into textured protein. For example, there is no extrusion facility in Sweden.

A transition towards more plant-based production and consumption is no easy undertaking. Efforts are needed in many areas and by various actors. For a more holistic approach we recommend countries develop national action plans and targets for sustainably produced plant-based foods.

Increasing the proportion of plant-based food does not mean excluding livestock rearing completely. Grazing animals are essential to maintain biodiversity rich pastures. The report features two farms that have transitioned from intensive animal farming to more extensive production systems.

At Sjöholm farm in Sweden, they went from 1,200 purchased young bulls fed with purchased concentrate feed in 2017 to 350 beef cattle grazing on natural pastures not suitable for cultivation today. They have also diversified by producing grains for human consumption and want to diversify even further by also growing vegetables and fruits. The new production system requires fewer employees, but the returns are better since the costs for external inputs are much lower.

The other example, Hvanstrup, is a combined milk and vegetable farm in southern Denmark. The number of cows is adapted to the fertiliser needs of the land and the need for being self-sufficient in feed from the grassland. The just over a hundred cows are only fed grass and the milk they produce is branded as “grass milk” at a large food retailer.  

Most farms in northern Europe are today highly specialised and focused on either livestock or plant production. By diversifying, as these two examples, farmers become less vulnerable to fluctuations in market prices and disease and less dependent on inputs from other farms or even countries.

Radical changes in agricultural policy are needed, to encourage more intensive livestock farms to make the transition towards more extensive and land-based systems. This includes adequate support for nature conservation and grasslands, one-time payments for turning arable land into permanent grassland as well as a climate-based tax on greenhouse gas emissions and relaunching of quotas for livestock.

Kajsa Pira

The report Nordic Food Transition – Low emissions opportunities in agriculture,


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