Greening the fields

Greening the fields


describes Sweden's progress towards its official
goal of having the 'cleanest agriculture in the world'

farmers in field

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 or colouring.

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 last decade.

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 major goals:

- 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 self-auditing.

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 improved.

Meeting demand

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.

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