Greening the fields
describes Sweden's progress towards its
goal of having the 'cleanest agriculture in the
Any farmer will tell you that his or her first priority is to make a reasonable
living from the land: to grow abundant crops, to get good prices for animals at
market and avoid the scourges of pests and disease. But consumers have a
different set of priorities: good quality, good flavour, reasonable prices and,
above all, healthy food, free of chemicals and artificial enhancements to flavour
Consumers are looking for what they believe nature can provide more or
less unaided, while farmers well know that nature, left to itself, is
unlikely to keep up with consumer demand.
Sweden's farmers, however, have listened to consumers. Our aim, for the
past 20 years, has been to have the 'cleanest agriculture in the world'.
In fact, during our negotiations to join the European Union (EU), we
insisted that we would not lower our environmental standards to bring them
in line with it. As a result, we have been allowed to keep our rules while
we wait for the EU to catch up.
Sweden may be one of the largest countries in Europe, but less than a
tenth of its total area is under cultivation. About half the land is
covered by forests and mountains; another third by lakes and marshes. It
is sparsely populated - with some 8.8 million people - and only a few of
them work in agriculture. We have some 91,000 farms, but only 30,000 full-time
farmers; 70 per cent of our farmers combine agriculture with other
occupations, such as forestry. Sweden largely escaped the feudal system,
and traditionally farms have been family-owned. There is a strong bond
between farmers, their land and their animals, and this has had an
important influence on our agricultural methods and ethics. Farmers have
aimed, for thousands of years, to leave their land in better condition for
the next generation.
An unusually large number of Swedish farmers are closely involved in food
processing and manufacture, via cooperatively owned plants. This structure
is largely responsible for the greening of Swedish agriculture: progress
has been strongly influenced by increasing environmental awareness and a
close dialogue with consumers.
Like other progressive countries, Sweden was at first keen to adopt the
new farming methods and materials that flourished in post-war Europe. But
then came a major blow which caused a change of direction. A salmonella
epidemic in 1953 killed 100 people, creating a crisis of confidence in the
country's agricultural methods among livestock producers and the food
industry. This led to a radical programme of change in husbandry methods
and an historic pledge to produce food through the cleanest agriculture in the world.
The first step was to institute a major programme to eradicate the
salmonella bacteria. Its central principle was that no strain of
salmonella contamination of food was acceptable. Under strict rules,
samples are tested for all 2,300 known strains of the bacteria, instead of
just the two most common ones. By law, every detected case of
contamination must be reported. Infected meat is classed as unfit for
consumption and may not be sold.
The public authorities work closely with the Swedish Poultry Meat
Association in a control programme which includes strict sanitation from
breeding through to slaughter, careful monitoring of imports and rigorous
testing at all stages of production, including feed. In 1990, tests showed
that as little as 0.2 to 0.7 per cent of Swedish poultry meat was
contaminated - one of the lowest rates in the world.
Following nature's lead
At the same time, changes in farming methods took place right across the
agricultural spectrum. Over the past 20 years, Sweden has developed an
alternative system of agriculture based upon the vision of
Kretslopp - 'agriculture which aims to be in harmony with the cycle
of nature'. The vast majority of Swedish farmers accept this approach,
which is backed by strict regulations and understood by consumers.
Swedish farmers adopted their first environmental programme in 1972,
aiming at reducing the use of chemical insecticides and herbicides and
artificial fertilizers. This reversed earlier policies which actively
encouraged the use of chemicals to improve output at a time when many
farmers were leaving the land.
As environmental knowledge increased, farmers became concerned about the
long-term effects of pollution and the leaching of nutrients and chemicals
into the environment. Until recently, Sweden's waters were polluted with
some 70,000 tonnes of nitrogen from agriculture every year. Comprehensive
efforts, including crop rotation and the proper use and handling of
natural fertilizers, have cut this by 30 per cent. Phosphorous compounds
have nearly been halved, and cadmium reduced by over 80 per cent over the
A stringent programme has cut the use of herbicides, pesticides and
fungicides by 70 per cent since 1985. It included compulsory spraying
certificates, taxes on pesticides, increased research and the development
of non-chemical plant protection methods. On average, a Swedish farmer
uses only a quarter of the amount of pesticides and fungicides used in
many other countries.
Another programme is now emphasizing substantial risk-reduction methods
rather than quantitative reduction goals.
In 1995 the Government introduced an environmental programme with four
- the preservation of certain cultivated landscapes and areas of
particular natural, cultural and environmental value;
- support for pasture land in 'less favourable' areas of southern
Sweden and other areas requiring special support;
- restoration and preservation in environmentally sensitive areas;
- support for organic farming.
This is supported by the Swedish farmers' own policy of improving working
practices through studying environmentally sound farming methods and
Animal care is an important aspect of the Eco Audit programme and has
concerned Swedish farmers since 1981, when a press story revealed that
they were feeding 30 tonnes of antibiotics a year to healthy pigs and
chickens to promote growth as well as prevent disease. Voluntary measures
were immediately adopted to prevent this and in 1986 a law, proposed by
the Federation of Swedish Farmers, reinforced them. Antibiotics may now
only be used when animals are ill and they are prescribed by vets.
Since then, the use of antibiotics in livestock rearing has fallen by 35
per cent. This has prevented bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics,
making it possible to treat sick animals successfully; and it has reduced
the dangers posed by chemical residues. Animal housing has also been
Consumer demand for ecologically grown grain has grown so dramatically
that farmers have had a difficult time keeping up. The market share for
ecologically sound products is expected eventually to reach 15 per cent.
Roughly 4 per cent of Swedish farmland is now being ecologically
cultivated and the goal is to reach 10 per cent by the year 2000.
In 1995, the Federation of Swedish Farmers, together with the Swedish
Ecological Farmers' Association, formulated a programme for organic food,
focusing on development and education. In the longer term, the Federation
aims to achieve resource-efficient and sustainable agriculture, by both
refocusing on ecological production, and by developing conventional
cultivation to meet higher environmental standards. Integrated production
and organic cultivation are seen as the first steps. Labelling systems are
being developed for garden produce, cereal and grains, and animal products.
In a consumer-driven society, the producer must always be aware of changes
of focus - and strive to conform to them. By meeting the needs of an increasingly
environmentally aware public, Swedish farmers have found the way to successful
markets, at home and abroad.
Hans Jonsson is Chairman of the Federation of Swedish Farmers, to which
85 per cent of Swedish farmers belong.