Case study dilemma and research question
The Swedish case study addresses key sustainability issues of reducing climate impacts through a greater integration of livestock and crop production. The main action looks at diversification as a strategy to move closer to systems where animals can play a truly positive role in food production systems. Integrating crops and livestock production is a key characteristic of agro-ecology in which the role of the animals is to convert non-human-edible biomass to food and also convert grass and other biomass to manure to fertilise crops. At the same time, diversification includes a shift of consumption patterns to plant-based diets containing limited amounts of animal source foods.
The case study research question therefore is: what are the challenges and possibilities to diversify ruminant livestock farms (conventional and organic) to include more crops for direct human consumption while simultaneously integrating more agro-ecological principles to enhance sustainability performance in an economically highly strained production sector?
Key characteristics and sustainability issues of the farming system
To reach environmental goals, Swedish (and European) agriculture needs to move towards less environmentally impacting farming systems with a higher integration of livestock and crop production, and towards producing more crops for direct human consumption and less livestock. Considering this, instead of further intensification and increasing animal numbers to reach profitability, a desired path for current livestock farms would be to diversify production towards including more crops for direct human consumption. There is no general shortage of cropland in Sweden limiting this development and there is certain, and potentially growing, consumer demand for Swedish plant-based products. There are however a range of other challenges for diversified livestock production, including climatic restraints in the northern and highland areas, limited sales and processing opportunities for e.g., legumes, lock-ins into current production systems, limited investment opportunities and lack of suitable crop-varieties and knowledge of how to grow them. The level of cooperation on the market is additionally low and many farmers trying new crops and alternative production systems face lack of information, isolation in decisions-making, struggle to find appropriate seeds, advising services and sales opportunities. The Swedish case study aims to increase understanding of these limiting factors and how they can be overcome. Farms participating in the Swedish case study have been testing paths for diversification of their milk and meat producing units by incorporating more crops for direct human consumption.
Key actors involved
- Sales opportunities for crops for direct human consumption - Networks, companies and actors which can directly and indirectly increase sales opportunities for crops for direct human consumption, there among legumes and grains.
- Food retail - The Swedish food retail market is highly concentrated with only three companies controlling over 90% of the market. Purchasing and procurement of these companies hence has large impact throughout the Swedish food system.
- Farmers’ associations - The main association in Sweden, LRF, chiefly represents conventional farmers in Sweden and has two separate branches for meat and milk producers. It also has separate branches for crop and vegetable producers and cooperation across branches could be improved. There is also one main association for organic farmers, Ekologiska lantbrukarna.
- Sector organisations - There are sector organisations active within the Swedish food system both to promote the consumption of meat and plant-based foods. They are initiatives led by other companies on the Swedish market and operate primarily towards industry actors and consumers and do not directly represent farmers.
- Advisors - Advisor services are provided by a range of actors, including government authorities, farmers’ associations, private companies and NGOs. Some work mainly directly with farmers while others work to e.g. promote the use of certain products in public kitchens.
- NGOs - The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and WWF are the two largest environmental NGOs active in Sweden. Both have separate departments working specifically with food and agriculture, however most often towards policy makers, industry and consumers rather than producers directly.
- Government authorities - Public governance actors include municipalities, regional governments, state authorities such as the Swedish Board of Agriculture and national governmental departments.
- Innovators, company and product development - A number of networks, companies and initiatives exist which aim to promote innovation, develop new product, protect local gastronomic heritage, increase product refinement and processing, enhance quality and increase values kept within farming companies.
- Research - Actors involved in research span from (other) researchers at SLU holding expert knowledge on certain sustainability issues or farming practices and and also test-stations and projects aiming to develop varieties suitable for Scandinavia.
Agro-ecological practices and sustainability trade-offs
The main agro-ecological practice consists in increased cultivation and sales of more crops for direct human consumption. This can be done by following several practices: crops previously sold as feed are sold as food, abandoned land is taken into cultivation, improved balance between livestock and crops to cover fertilisation needs, balanced crop rotation with leguminous leys, grazing on permanent pastures, feed ruminants mainly from roughages, reduced stocking densities and reduced need for concentrate feed. Diversifying production can help farmers to increase their resilience towards shocks, as well as increase their profitability when selling crops as food rather than feed. However, this can lead to longer working hours for the farmer, as well as potential loss in case they are not able to find vendors for their food crops. If livestock numbers cannot be reduced, e.g. because they are tightly interlinked with subsidies, increased sales of crops for food may risk increasing feed imports to the farm.
Key barriers of implementation of agro-ecological practices
- Market concentration in all segments of the value chain “above” the farmer: several sections of the value chain “above” the farmer are dominated by a few, very large actors that therefore have considerable power over prices and conditions for farmers.
- Low profitability in general: the profitability of milk and meat farming has been poor over the past decades. Farmers often additionally have high debt-to-capital ratios (i.e., high borrowing) and describe having limited capacity to make whichever investments would be needed to diversify the production of the farm.
- Lack of knowledge about producing crops for direct human consumption: farmers may lack knowledge and experience of how to cultivate crops for direct human consumption (e.g., suitable varieties, techniques and quality requirements).
- Lack of processing facilities for legumes and niche crops: there is a lack of facilities for drying, sorting, processing and packaging of legumes and some niche crops, e.g., buckwheat, in Sweden which hinder sales opportunities for such crops which in turn creates a barrier for farmers to start growing them.
- Strong traditions of meat and dairy: there are often strong traditions associated with meat and milk farming, both from the family and the farming community. A desire to change and try new practices can be met with scepticism, which can hinder farmers because they lack the necessary social support.
- Lack of both vertical and horizontal cooperation: there is currently limited cooperation between farmers and also between farmers and other actors in the food chain. This exacerbates other barriers, e.g., the capacity to jointly invest in improved processing, share knowledge and support, and jointly negotiate prices and sales deals.
- Heavier workload and need for broader knowledge: a more diverse farm might lead to a higher workload, especially initially, and require broader knowledge including expertise in both livestock farming and cropping for human consumption.
Key actions and Strategies to overcome barriers
The transition strategy for the Swedish case study is agro-ecological diversification through the integration of livestock and crop production. The co-constructed strategy for the agro-ecological transition aims at defining a shared pathway for the transition among the actors of the case study to address the different barriers. An example of helping overcoming the obstacle of low profitability and to promote the implementation of agro-ecological practices is led the payment scheme piloted by the oat drink company, Oatly, as an outcome of the Swedish case study. The payment scheme to be piloted in the summer or 2021, will pay a price premium for each sustainability improvement implemented, hence promoted targeted sustainability improvement at farm level. Another example (however initiated prior to the UNISECO project) is the cooperation between the retailer Coop, which developed and now sells a legume based frozen food product made from peas grown at one of the participant’s farm. This product is one of few vegan products on the Swedish market which is organic and produced from Swedish crops - and one of very few with a reference all the way back to the farmers.
At the broader level, there are some policy and market instruments that have the potential to promote cooperation and agro-ecological diversification. Price premiums for farmers that implement high sustainability standards, such as the schemes initiated by Oatly, in combination with longer term contracts could give farmers the security that companies will buy their sustainable products for a fair price. Other instruments are the public Farm Advisory Services, which provide many free services and trainings, such as courses and farm assessments to improve environmental performance. In addition, they could advise farmers on how to start producing new crops, as well as give market advice on investments that might help farmers to diversify.
Key lessons learnt
- There is a substantial, but varied, potential to grow more crops for direct human consumption. Some farms have increased their economic profitability as well as their environmental performance through diversification, increasing the amount of energy, protein and fat produced per hectare. Other farms have not had such positive results, also due to the lack of vendors interested in buying crops for direct human consumption
- Farmers need support in transitioning - knowledge, network, social support & higher payment. The UNISECO project has created a platform for actors who rarely meet to discuss and network. Connections made through the project have created several new farmer-buyer relationships. Also, the Facebook page for the participants has helped farmers to share experiences and tips on how to diversify.
- Long term cooperation between farmers and buyers/industry actors is needed. The platform created by UNISECO has been the starting point for fruitful collaboration between producers and companies in the food industry. This has led to several projects whereby farmers are paid a fairer price for their sustainability practices, and they are given the time to adjust their production to the needs of the market.
- More local food processing to increase sales opportunities for farmer are needed. Farmers are open to produce more crops for direct human production, but they need to know that their products can be processed and put on the market. Collaboration with food companies has demonstrated to increase the possibilities of farmers to sell crops that they could not have produced before.
- Need for national focus on, and strategy for diversification to increase production of protein crops, vegetables and fruit. Sweden has strong traditions animal production, and this can create hinders for farmers. A push for diversification from the public would spread the knowledge about agro-ecological practices, as well as giving support to those producers that have started an agro-ecological transition.
- UNISECO H2020 issue brief: Agro-ecological diversification to produce more food from ruminant farms in Sweden: possibilities for economic and environmental sustainability
- UNISECO H2020 issue brief: Agroekologisk diversifiering för produktion av mer mat från gårdar med idisslare i Sverige: möjligheter för ökad lönsamhet och lägre miljöpåverkan
- UNISECO H2020 policy brief: Agro-ecological diversification to produce more food from Swedish ruminant farms