16 March 2022

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, fears of skyrocketing electricity and fuel prices have formed the basis of a debate about Sweden's degree of self-sufficiency. But it is not only energy and fuel prices that are affected, the country's capacity for food production is also threatened.

Biofertilizer provides organic nutrition for the soil.
Fertilizers provides nutrition to the soil, a a necessity to avoid erosion.
Prices for gas and electricity have risen by between 240 and 400 percent in just one year. Within the EU, there are now fears that energy prices will affect the agricultural sector and ultimately food production. That is why the European Commission last week presented a package of measures to alleviate energy costs for European households and businesses. Among other things, joint gas purchases, mandatory regulations were proposed to strengthen the EU's security of supply, and increased investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

But why would food production be affected? The answer is spelled plant nutrition. Fossil natural gas is used to produce mineral fertilizers, which is a prerequisite for most European agriculture. If the supply and import of mineral fertilizers were restricted, it would greatly affect the agricultural sector's capacity to produce food in Europe.

- How we think about security issues and crises today is not the same as before. Previously, the strategy was to store food and other necessities and build up large storages. Today we know that it is rather a matter of developing and maintaining production capacity of, for example, food and energy within the country. So it is not food per se that is interesting, but what we need to produce food, says Mats Eklund, professor of the Department of Management and Engineering at Linköping University and director of Biogas Solutions Research Center.

Supply of plant nutrients is absolutely crucial to be able to produce food on a large scale. But it does not have to come from mineral fertilizers, it can be replaced by biofertilizer, which is a by-product of biogas extracted from organic material. In Sweden, it is most common to produce biofuel for vehicles, and biofertilizer for Swedish farms, from food waste, organic residues from industry and animal manure.

- Biogas solutions are about three parts; waste treatment, plant nutrition and energy carriers for, for example, fuels. In principle, we also get a renewable fuel that is important for producing food because different vehicles are needed in agriculture and for other transports, and renewable plant nutrients from the biogas systems.

At present, Sweden is dependent on imports of both fuel and plant nutrients, a potentially dangerous situation when international trade and security are threatened by war in our immediate area. There is therefore reason for many societal actors to review the conditions for domestic production.

- If we have our own production of a fuel, we could redirect it in times of crisis. Say that petrol and diesel do not come to a country, would it not be good if all so-called "blue light vehicles" run on a domestically produced fuel? It would be good if the police, the ambulance, the rescue service and perhaps the military could move, even if we do not get hold of fuel that comes from outside. The more we invest, the more infrastructure and facilities we have, the less vulnerable we become. But it is too late to start when the crisis is already here because it takes a long time to build production capacity and infrastructure.

The Swedish biogas sector has not grown in recent years, but since the decision to introduce production premiums for biogas, there is optimism to achieve the national goal of producing five times as much biogas by 2030, from 2TWh to 10TWh.

- Not everything is finished with these production premiums but they are the key. Society thus pays something for the social services that are provided when we have biogas production by, among other things, we counteract methane emissions from manure, and then the capital has found its way to the biogas sector. Now there are well-off companies that have a lot of money going into the sector to make money in a way we have not had before. When the state and capital are on the same side, very good conditions are created for success, which in this case can make society somewhat less vulnerable, says Mats Eklund.


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