Sweden Cultivates a Sustainable Future

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In the Great North, a story of resourcefulness is playing out that would make even Swedish hero Gustavus Adolphus proud. While King Gustavus is considered to be one of the “fathers of modern warfare,” some historians argue that the ingenuity of his domestic reforms actually overshadow his military feats in determining the future independence of Sweden. These reforms positioned the country for further modernization in other areas, including agriculture.

Sweden had adopted a strip farming policy in the 1300s known as Solskifte, or sun division, assigning parcels of land to farmers within a village community. Each farm had, in theory, equal access to the sun along with land that may be well-suited for crop growth and other land that might lead to poor yields. This land tenure system lasted for about three centuries before being slowly phased out over two centuries after 1600. The reform known as Enskiftet, starting in 1803, reoriented land ownership away from the traditional village system to private farms. Further land reforms later in the 19th century would complete the transition of Sweden’s farmlands to private ownership.

Another set of government reforms in the late 20th century could be considered just as much of a sea change for the country. After becoming a member of the EU, farmers were required to gradually adopt the framework of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), including a push towards a more market-oriented and eco-friendly approach to agricultural production.

Sweden’s Food Trade Rises After CAP

However, that was not the case after the Second World War. Sweden pursued an agriculture policy of oversupply—including a system of tariffs and subsidies—largely in response to the devastation of the Great Depression and a need for domestic food security during the war. This has all changed as reforms within the CAP during the past decade have pushed the country further toward specialization and sustainability.

Geography plays a major role in Swedish farming. Roughly 15 percent of the country’s land mass is located north of the Arctic Circle, and the western part of the country is hilly or mountainous, which naturally limits the amount of arable land. Despite those topographical constraints, Sweden still has a considerable amount of suitable area, particularly in the south, for the large-scale cultivation of cereals and other crops.

Yields vary greatly across Sweden, as the growing season in the southern province of Skåne are 100 days longer than in the northern province of Norrland. As such, the country’s climate extremes have greatly determined where the primary crops are cultivated along 1,500 kilometres of North-South distance. Barley, oats, and forage are mainly grown in the north. Wheat and rye tend to be planted in the plains districts of south and central Sweden, along with rapeseed, colza, and other oilseeds. Sugarbeets are cultivated only in the very southernmost areas. Potatoes and livestock production are spread relatively uniformly across the country. Hence, nature has nudged the Swedes towards managing for efficiency from the start.

Necessity is the mother of specialization

Swedish agriculture has been able to maintain and increase its economic value-added despite a declining percentage of the country’s population focusing on agriculture. These productivity gains have mainly been achieved by merging small unprofitable farms into larger units.

Percent of Employment in Agriculture vs. Value Added

A clear example of the country’s ingenuity is in the dairy sector. Averaging 9,500 kg of milk per cow per year, Swedish dairies have the highest milk yields in Europe. What’s more, 70 percent of the country’s milk is produced in the “milk belt,” which is just 20 percent of the total land in Sweden.

Milk Production: Whole Milk Output & Cow Milk, Unprocessed per cow

Sweden’s participation in the CAP has incentivized farmers to focus on their comparative advantages. In response to new trade winds, farmers expanded grain and sugarbeet production by 10 percent between 1994 and 2000, while reducing oilseed production by 60 percent during the same period. The country’s farmers have also allocated more land to organic forage, grains, and vegetable production, while increasingly investing in specialized dairy, meat, and food production. In turn, consumers have boosted their annual consumption of organic foods (177 euros per capita) to the third-highest level in the European Union, trailing only Denmark and first-place Switzerland.

When Sweden joined the CAP, there was an initial drop in producer prices and an increase in consumer prices. Since then, the price inflation has slowed and food exports as a percent of merchandise exports are on the rise again. Notwithstanding a higher price for imported products in many cases, Sweden’s consumers have steadily increased food imports since the turn of the century.

The greater pursuit of sustainability

There are three main objectives for agriculture within Sweden’s national environmental policy. They are: “A Varied Agricultural Landscape, Zero Eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water), and A Non-Toxic Environment,” according to the UN. To achieve the first part of the framework, the country has allocated significant resources to protecting its forests (accounting for 68.9% of land mass), coastland, and waterways since the 1990s.

Protected Marine and Land Area

In order to achieve the rest of its vision, the country has adopted sustainable agricultural practices with almost universal support from farmers and politicians. Yet, this wasn’t always the case. When farmers in Sweden were striving for output rather than prioritizing resource management, artificial fertilizer use jumped several fold between 1950 and 1980. In order to address the excess use of synthetic fertilizers, the Swedish government implemented an environmental tax on certain fertilizers, including many nitrogen fertilizers, in 1984.

Nitrogen fertilizers, in particular, are notorious for causing environmental problems, including the pollution of water, eutrophication of surface waters, and acidification of natural landscapes. As a result of the government’s forward thinking, the gross nitrogen nutrient balance per hectare is now well below that of many of its counterparts in the EU. The use of nitrogen fertilizers declined by roughly 14 percent between 1995 and 2014.

Gross Nitrogen Nutrient Balance

Sweden also adopted a goal of converting 10 percent of the country’s agriculture area to organic agricultural production as part of its environmental policy in 1994. Since then, the percent of agriculture area dedicated to organic production has soared from 5.9 percent in 2000 to 15.4 percent in 2015. At the same time, Sweden’s agricultural area has barely moved. Given the initial progress, Sweden has reiterated its support for organic agriculture production by setting a new goal of 20 percent.

Percent of Certified Organic Agriculture Area vs. Total Agriculture Area

Due to the credits available under the CAP, grasslands and fodder can make up a sizable amount of certified organic production among countries in the EU. While Sweden is no exception, the country has had increasing success in also growing organic cereal, meat, fruit, and vegetable production. In fact, organic wheat production has nearly doubled between 2010 and 2015.

Production of Barley and Wheat vs. Organic Barley and Wheat


Sweden’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond its borders. In partnership with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the country has supported a climate-smart agriculture policy that could lead to a “CSA Certified” classification for consumer goods. Sweden has also funded agricultural and emergency programs in Somalia, Mali, Chad, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Yet, the country could do far more for global food security, including pushing for greater access of African food imports within the EU.

In light of its limited role within global agriculture, it may be more proper to showcase Sweden as an alternative path rather than the yardstick by which all other countries are measured. The dedication to sustainable agricultural practices and organic food production, along with the willingness to incur higher food imports at a greater cost burden for its consumers, is laudable. However, Sweden’s specific policies may not make sense for countries with large populations, lower per capita income levels, and/or a comparative advantage in large-scale agricultural production.

Nevertheless, the country’s example should challenge the basic assumption that the only way to feed the world in 2050 is to expand production at all costs. Sweden’s daily food intake per capita was nearly 10 percent lower than the French and Germans, and roughly 15 percent lower than the Americans in 2013. Lower food consumption and the adoption of the virtual water concept in developed regions could be another tool in ensuring long-term food security, but ones that would likely face considerable resistance.

Furthermore, agricultural producers would likely argue that, excess consumption leads to the generation of demand support. Without consumption, they would be unable to keep investment in research and development and, in turn, production on an upward trajectory. Then when daily food consumption in developing economies caught up, supply would be inadequate. If there is one lesson, though, that all countries should take away from Sweden, it is this: not only is sustainable agricultural production within reach, but it’s also worth the long-term investment.

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