Lessons from Sweden's organic farming sector

| 16th March 2020
Aerial photograph of snow covered trees
There is much to be learned from Sweden on integrating our farm systems, naturally, with the local ecosystems.

The UK, Sweden and so much of the world just destroyed their natural habitats much earlier in history.

It seems I brought the snow to Sweden. Like us, they have had a mild, wet winter, and even in Dalarna, towards the middle of the country, barely a scrap of the white stuff has fallen.

"Every year the snow line moves 10km's North" said Anders Lunneyard, President of the Ekologiska Lantbrukarna, the organic farmer's organisation that I came to meet with.

Climate change is not a future event with still the chance of avoidance: it is here, now, already shaping our world anew.

Demand

I thought twice about coming, with the world in meltdown over coronavirus and the idea of reclaiming three days of time to do all the things I should have done, it was an attractive prospect. I could do my presentation by Skype perhaps, then clear my overflowing inbox.

But as I speed homewards, through forests and farmland rendered monochrome by long-awaited snow, across dark waters, past red wood houses that mostly meld into the landscape, I’m glad I came.

Human relationships are hard to build without personal contact. Reading and viewing, talking through the ether can never quite take the place of meeting, seeing, smelling, absorbing, feeling.

Organic farming in Sweden is way ahead of the UK. As much as 20 percent of the cropped land area is organic, and more than 10 percent of the food market.

As is so often - too often - the case, it was food scares a few years ago which jet-propelled the demand for organic food, with sales rising by 40 percent per annum or more for a while.

Organic

Lots more farmers converted as a result, and there are some 5000 growing organically today. But the market growth has plateaued, and some farmers are struggling to obtain the prices they need.

Retailers, who along with the big processors are very integrated into KRAV and Organic Sweden, have gone quiet on organic, and are busy instead on their vegan ranges.

Several farmers opined that they should have done more in the good years, to build a deeper understanding of the issues amongst the public. Nevertheless, in terms of market share, Sweden is proud to be fourth in the world.

For every citizen in Sweden, there are 4.5 hectares of land; 2.5ha of these are forest; 0.5 of inland water; 0.3 of crops and the rest pasture or development.

I learned that the majority of organic farmers have both forest and farmland, with the speculation that farming a more complex environment predisposes towards an interest in a diverse system like organic.

Habitats

It was impressed on me how important the forest is financially, both for individual farmers and nationally.

Yet the Swedish forestry story seems to hold many lessons. There is virtually no natural forest remaining; it was all destroyed long ago and when replanting took place, it was only with fast-growing Norway Spruce and Scots Pine.

It is a vast duo-crop, covering over half of the country, with a powerful industry behind it that is resistant to change.

Or so I was told.

As many have noted before, while we rightly lament the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, we forget that it is simply a matter of timing: the UK, and Sweden and so much of the world just destroyed their natural habitats much earlier in history.

Communities

I raced by train through a winter wonderland of white Christmas trees - an iconic sight, but like much of the British countryside, not always one to be proud of if you dig below the surface.

Organic farmers are a stimulating bunch the world over, and the organic movement prides itself on great food.

So a tour of artisan food producers around the Siljan Ring - a circle of lakes created by a meteorite - was a fascinating and gluttonous affair.

We visited a beef farm with its own restaurant; a dairy making organic halloumi; a vegetable grower specialising in fermenting her produce, and a fruit producer making every imaginable preserve and syrup in a profusion of flavour combinations.

I learned about the resolute independence of the folk around here, a place that was hard to conquer yet where the villages were forcibly split several times in the 1800s, sending people to live on their land rather than in communities.

Vanished

The aim of this harsh policy was to make farming more efficient and is credited by some for a cultural shift to a more independent mindset.

All too soon, however, I have done my party piece on the SA’s thinking and plans for the future. 

Apparently our ‘Road to 2020’ strategy was widely admired, so they were keen to know what the ‘Road to 2030’ might be looking like... all will be revealed soon, but for now... it’s time to leave.

By the time I get back to Stockholm, the snow has vanished.

This Author

Helen Browning is chief executive of the Soil Association. 

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