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Swedes do it better

Gunnela Stahle
6 June 2001

You may not have noticed it, but a revolution has been going on in Swedish farming. Over the last twenty years we have adopted a proactive and holistic approach to agriculture. We may not have done everything right. But at a time when European consumers have lost confidence in the food Europe produces, we have managed to avoid major food scandals.

In my work for the Federation of Swedish Farmers, I have been deeply involved in these changes throughout this period. I hope that our experience may inspire other farmers and the food industry in other countries.

The Swedes have a particularly close relationship with the countryside. Late urbanisation means that many Swedes still have relatives who are farmers or who live in the countryside.

We also care a great deal about our animals. This may have something to do with the fact that in the old days farmers and their cattle lived close together during the cold, dark and long winters. Keeping animals alive was the best way to avoid starvation, before the return of the light and the start of the growing season.

Pippi Longstocking, national role model

Our farming roots have been kept alive by one particular person, beloved of the Swedish people – the children’s writer, Astrid Lindgren, creator of the character Pippi Longstocking. In her books, Lindgren describes farm life of the Fifties, when farms were small and still had a variety of different animals on them. The Swedes consider Lindgren to be a very wise old lady, a strong opinion-maker – indeed, almost a saint.

It was she who started it all. At the beginning of the Eighties she began writing about the radical changes that were taking place in animal production. She argued that we needed to improve animal welfare. People listened and reacted. ‘My cow wants fun,’ she wrote. She was strongly supported by Marit Paulsen, at that time a very popular author and crusader for food quality, and now a member of the European Parliament. And Marit became the voice of the critical consumer.

Sweden also has a long tradition of peasant proprietors. In the 1930s, they organised themselves into producers’ cooperatives. Ninety per cent are members of the Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF), which includes both farmers and their companies. That means that when Swedish farmers take a position, things happen.

From dialogue to confidence

Sweden is also a country of consensus. We believe in broad dialogue and shared values between stakeholders: consumers, producers, opinion makers and society. Everything that we achieved became possible because of the consensus we arrived at concerning the respect due to animals and the environment in food production.

In 1983, the main issue was the factory farming of pigs – the inhumanity of animal transports and bad handling at slaughter. We faced a choice: we could argue that the worried consumers were wrong. Or we could accept that things were not always done right – and do something about it.

Two years later, the Swedish Farmers Meat Marketing Association set clear goals as to how animal welfare and safe food could be achieved at all phases of production from breeding to slaughter. I was personally responsible for a programme to promote the development of new transport systems and the rebuilding of abattoirs.

We taught people how to drive the vehicles properly and how to handle animals at slaughter. We kept our critics informed and we debated the issues with them. We appointed farmers who were responsible for animal welfare to inspire their colleagues to change to a more animal welfare friendly attitude. After several years of hard work, we saw a shift in consumer confidence towards Swedish meat.

In 1987, chicken consumption dropped by 40%. Campylobacter in poultry meat was identified. Consumers were scared. But the debate did not stop with food safety. The whole production system was criticized, including large-scale production and animal welfare problems at transport and slaughter. The leading poultry company got together with its critics, including Marit Paulsen. Together, they started their own animal welfare program, later adopted by the Swedish Poultry Association. Since then, chicken consumption has almost doubled.

The 1988 Swedish Animal Protection Act states that: ‘Animals shall not only be protected from unnecessary suffering, but from disease. Farmers and handlers will promote the good health of animals and give them the chance of behaving naturally.’ Since 1994, stalls and tethers for sows have been banned. All pigs must have access to straw. Sweden was the first country in the EU to ban battery cages.

No mad cows

How can you use fallen stock, sick and dead animals, to feed dairy cows, which by nature are grass-eaters? Shit in – shit out. Having worked with feed development, I never could understand how rotten animals could be converted to high quality feed.

An intense media debate in December 1985 led to an immediate ban from 1 January 1986 on the use of fallen stock for animal feed. From 1 July 1987, the Swedish dairies and slaughterhouses also decided to halt the use of both fish meal and meat-and-bone meal in the feed for dairy cows and sheep for ethical reasons.

Sweden stopped importing live animals from the UK in 1988, and imported animals that were still alive in1997 have been destroyed. The risk of BSE in Sweden must therefore be considered as highly unlikely.

Convincing the EU about antibiotics

In 1981, the Federation responded to criticism over the routine use of antibiotics in pig and poultry feed, by declaring that farmers were prepared to stop this practise. Three years later, parliament responded to the farmers’ request, and Sweden decided to stop using antibacterial feed additives. Consumer confidence was one reason for this move. We also knew that sooner or later any use of antibiotics would promote resistant strains of bacteria. Since 1986, no animals in Sweden can be given antibiotics without a veterinary prescription. By improving animal management, conditions and feed, our producers have managed to reduce the consumption of antibiotics to animals by more than fifty per cent.

When Sweden became a member of the EU in 1995, the question arose: should we use membership to try to convince the rest of Europe that it is possible to raise pigs and poultry without the routine use of antibacterial feed additives? We had a strong argument: resistant bacteria in animals can spread to humans via the food chain. Resistance to antimicrobial agents is considered to be a major public health problem in Europe.

Our campaign succeeded. We convinced the EU of the importance of limiting the use of antibiotics in animal production. We were able to do this because we were united: consumers, producers, ministry, authorities and vets.

What is remarkable about this achievement is that the Swedish action posed a great threat to the pharmaceutical industry. So it shows that even a small member state can change EU regulations by acting together and having strong arguments.

This has been a fantastic experience for me. I wrote the first policy on antibiotics in 1981, the most recent one last year, and I have revelled in the pleasure of hearing the Commission use Swedish arguments to defend a phasing out of antibacterial feed additives – in the teeth of agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry.

Denial is the worst enemy

The challenge for Europe’s farmers and food industry is to regain consumer confidence. It must respond to the demand for safe food produced with ethical values. European farmers have the advantage that they are close to the European consumer and can, if they wish, also offer openness, traceability and other values, such as open landscape, culture and biological diversity.

The Swedish experience is that the worst enemy is denial – an unwillingness to listen and to change. Confident and enlightened consumers are willing to pay, especially if they know what is at stake.

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