Rethinking the Swedish model

Sweden’s agricultural sector is largely based on environmental
principles and organic farming. This has posed many challenges for
Swedish farmers, who are losing market share to cheaper imports.
Lindi van Rooyen spoke to Helena Jonsson, president of the
Federation of Swedish Farmers, about overcoming these challenges.

Rethinking the Swedish model
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Sweden’s agricultural sector declines by 2% per year. Why is the sector in decline?
Sweden’s agricultural production has remained nominally unchanged since joining the EU, but the sector is losing market share since Swedish consumption has risen relatively quickly and Swedish consumers have increasingly chosen cheaper imported products. The Swedish agricultural sector was not prepared upon entering the EU. Primary production had additional costs for compliance with animal welfare and environmental regulations.

The Swedish processing industry was customised for a national market and marketing and export channels were not up to date.
The Swedish government has not seen agriculture as a priority. In the past, the industry’s strategy was to shrink itself for better profitability, something that has not been entirely successful. This we want to change. We want to ensure the growth and development of the various branches of production.

What is your view on farmers receiving subsidies from government? Do you think it benefits the sector or keeps unsustainable farmers in business?
Subsidies that support the environment – biodiversity, animal welfare, investment, development and equalising regional conditions – may be beneficial. All EU countries have agricultural subsidies and we believe that a common agricultural policy in the EU is important.

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You have said that farming in a sustainable manner hasn’t paid off for Swedish farmers in terms of profitability. Why?
In the long run it hasn’t paid off. It is one of the reasons for the negative trend in agricultural growth seen over the last 20 years. We only have a few groups of consumers who are willing to pay for the value we produce. We need to learn how to reach those not willing to pay for the value, more effectively. And we as farmers need to be more competitive – lower costs and higher production. The increase in imports to Sweden shows that it is not possible to run a farm based 100% on the Swedish model.

What motivates Swedish farmers to farm in an environmentally friendly or organic way?
Personal beliefs, market demand, political backing and favourable agricultural conditions that allow for this kind of farming.

What can be done to convince consumers that they need to pay more for their food if they want it to be produced sustainably?
Clearer marketing and labelling. Our government also needs to ensure that it enforces the same requirements on imported products that it does on locally produced products.

Do consumers care enough about the sustainability of the food that they eat, or is the price the only issue?
A few groups of consumers care, but the issue is whether they are sufficient in numbers. For most consumers, the price remains the most important factor. Swedish farmers have to comply with copious regulations before they can get their produce on the market. This eats into the farmer’s profitability.

Do you think these regulations are absolutely necessary to ensure safe, environmentally friendly food?
There is considerable scope to simplify and improve the regulatory framework without compromising the sustainability or health aspect. In rural areas this would mean that a lot more people can start and run a business because simpler regulations will bring the costs down.

How should governments approach agricultural policies in order to ensure that the farmer and the consumer win?
Good, long-term profitability in all stages of the food chain is essential. The government must ensure development and cultivation of breeding models to enhance product development and farming. Healthy competition that constantly encourages improvements is also good.

Do you think that it is fair that Swedish farmers are not allowed to grow genetically modified (GM) crops but can import them for use as animal feed?

No it’s not a level playing field. We even have very limited ability to use GM crops as feed because of regulations.

Do you think it is fair that meat producers have to adhere to strict regulations to ensure animal welfare, but meat from countries without such legislation can be imported at a cheaper rate?
It’s the rules of the game we have today. We get global free trade, which can be negative, but in many respects we also benefit.
It is a delicate question as to how we get world trade to reward sustainability, animal welfare and environmental concerns. Here, of course, the EU’s agricultural policy is important.

What are the consequences of these practices?
It means that all too often countries that go ahead with strict production regulations punish their home producers. Farmers then move to places where demands and costs are lower. Even though these countries are supporting imported products, indirectly they are still contributing to environmental degradation.

Contact Helena Jonsson at [email protected]

Farmer’s Weekly would like to thank the following people for making Lindi van Rooyen’s visit to the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists congress in Sweden possible:

  • Caxton Magazines
  • Alltech International 
  • Monsanto