Food production with greater sustainability – how?

The food we eat affects not only our bodies, it also has a profound effect on the world we live in. Researchers at LiU have examined possible measures to increase sustainability in Swedish food production. One of their conclusions is that we need to learn more about how agriculture can adapt to climate change.

Curious child holding a bundle of carrots in green garden. Concept for sustainable ecological farming and harvest.Food production needs to be sustainable – how can we achieve that goal? Photo credit Björn ForeniusA team of LiU researchers has carried out a systematic review of previous research studies into sustainable food production in Sweden. One of their goals was to identify possible measures to increase sustainability in various parts of the food supply chain. The researchers concentrated on five dimensions: climate change, the environment, animal welfare, the spread of infectious diseases among animals (epidemiology), and economy. They included only measures that had been suggested in previous studies and that addressed more than one of the dimensions. This was because they wanted to gain an overall picture, and were interested in how the dimensions may be related to each other.

One of the conclusions drawn by the researchers in their review of research is that most of the previous studies have examined only one dimension at a time.

“That type of study is also required, but the lack of studies attempting to investigate the links between different dimensions of food production means that there is a risk that the measures proposed are sustainable only from a single perspective”, says Lotten Wiréhn, postdoc in the Department of Thematic Studies – Environmental Change.Malin TälleMalin Tälle

“Another knowledge gap arises since few studies have looked at animal welfare and animal epidemiology, both individually and together with other dimensions”, says Malin Tälle, postdoc in the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, Division of Theoretical Biology.

A third area in which more research is needed concerns the climate change adaptation of food production.

“Very few studies have considered how Swedish agriculture can be adapted to the climate changes we are facing, particularly in relationship to the other dimensions”, says Lotten Wiréhn.

Conflicting values

The researchers also considered the economic dimensions of various measures that are proposed in research studies.

“We looked at the conditions for farmers and other actors in the food supply chain from the perspective of profitability. Profitability is a must, if a farmer or company is to decide to work with measures intended to make food production more sustainable”, says Daniel Ellström, research fellow in the Department of Management and Engineering.

Some of the measures studied, such as interventions to increase energy efficiency and reduce food waste, are assessed to have positive effects from both a climate and environmental point of view, while at the same time increasing economic profitability. However, the assessment that economic profitability closely accompanies the other dimensions is the exception rather than the rule. The study suggests that it is relatively unusual that measures assessed to be beneficial for some of the other aspects are at the same time considered to be economically sustainable.

“Organic production, for example, is positive from the perspectives of the environment, climate change and animal welfare, depending to a certain extent on how it is assessed, while it is considered to reduce the yield, and in this way have lower economic sustainability in the form of profitability”, says Malin Tälle.

In a similar way, there are general synergy effects between the aspects of climate change and the environment for the production of biogas from waste products in the food supply chain, but it is currently difficult to achieve economic profitability.Lotten WiréhnLotten Wiréhn

“Even though current research shows that it may be necessary to balance the various proposed measures against each other, this does not mean that the challenges cannot be met. We need to increase knowledge about the connections between different parts of the food production system. Greater knowledge will equip us better to achieve balance between the different dimensions”, says Lotten Wiréhn.

Daniel Ellström believes that the challenges arise because of the many conflicts of interest that exist.

“At the moment, it is most profitable to do things in a manner that is not the most sustainable from other perspectives, such as an extensive use of artificial fertilisers, or not looking after the animals in the best way. What is needed to ensure that the economic perspective is compatible with the other perspectives is principally economic policy instruments. Much of the work involves designing subsidies such that the things that society believes in are profitable, and – in contrast to this – taxing the things that society wants less of”, says Daniel Ellström.

Choices, choices, choices...

So what role do we – the consumers – play in sustainable food production?Daniel EllströmDaniel Ellström

“It is the consumers who pay for it all, and thus their willingness to pay has a huge influence. This does not mean, however, that all responsibility can be laid on the consumers: they act on the basis of the preconditions on offer. We must design a system that makes it easy for consumers to act in a sustainable manner”, says Daniel Ellström.

Another topic to work on concerns food labelling. This can act as a source of information for consumers when they decide what to purchase.

“Organic labelling, for example, is increasing, and some consumers are purchasing more eco-friendly food. But not everybody is prepared to pay a higher price for, for example, food produced using measures to improve animal welfare. However, if consumers know what they are getting when they purchase food produced in a more sustainable manner, it makes the choice easier for them”, says Daniel Ellström.

A large part of the influence we as consumers have comes from what we choose to eat, how much we throw away, and how we manage our household waste.

“Studies have shown that from a consumer perspective adopting a vegetarian diet is in general the most efficient way of reducing emissions. Retailers have an important role to play by offering a range of goods that makes it possible for consumers to choose, for example, vegetarian food instead of meat”, says Lotten Wiréhn.

At the same time, agriculture is not possible without animal husbandry. During the study, the researchers held a workshop with interested parties from, among others, food production, transport, animal welfare, the county administrative board, and retailers, in order to listen to their points of view.

“Many of the actors we interviewed during the study emphasised how important it is to have animals on the farm. The integration of animal husbandry with arable farming is fundamental to agriculture, and in particular organic agriculture”, says Lotten Wiréhn.

It’s a case of, for example, using fertiliser from the farm’s own animals on the arable land, instead of purchasing artificial fertiliser, in order to produce better soil and create greater circular flow in the production. Animal allowed to graze freely contribute to maintaining biological diversity and a wide richness of species in the agricultural landscape.

“The people we interviewed in the study were aware of the need to reduce the amount of meat produced, but stated clearly that it would not be a good idea to end it completely”, says Malin Tälle.

By combining a literature study with interviews of interested parties, the researchers gained access to the special knowledge and perspectives of the interviewees, and found it possible to assess the relevance of the results of the literature study. The collaboration also meant that those who participated were able to share perspectives on the results of research in the area.

“And remember – it is those who work in the food supply chain who are to implement changes. They are a part of the system and a part of the solution”, says Malin Tälle.

Translated by George Farrants

The article:Synergies and trade-offs for sustainable food production in Sweden: an integrated approach”, Malin Tälle, Lotten Wiréhn, Daniel Ellström, Mattias Hjerpe, Maria Huge-Brodin, Per Jensen, Tom Lindström, Tina-Simone Neset, Uno Wennergren and Geneviève Metson, Sustainability 2019 11(3) 601, published online 23 January 2019, doi: 10.3390/su11030601

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