A Finnish food producer works in the midst of an ongoing transition
“The discussion around food in Finland is rather lofty and far removed from the practices of primary production,” says farmer and researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute, Tuomas Mattila. For food producers, the periods of drought, heat and heavy rain brought about by climate change pose acute challenges.
As early as the coming decades, food production will need to be able to feed more people, use less non-renewable natural resources and act as a carbon sink, in addition to adapting to climate change. Finland’s strength is its well-educated farmers and its even social structure.
What kind of transition are Finnish farmers facing?
Finnish food producers have always faced a continuous transition. The sector has seen the development of cultivation methods, the green revolution, specialisation and societal change.
The current change is a kind of continuation of this. This time, the challenge is the quickly rising prices of production inputs and the increasingly strict need to protect the environment. Adaptation is not made any easier by extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change. Currently, about four farms per day decide to cease their operations, which in turn reflects the scale of the change.
By the time we get to the 2050s, we will need food production which can successfully feed more people, adapt to intermittent droughts and heavy rain, and be able to function with far fewer non-renewable natural resources. In addition, agriculture should also act as a carbon sink in order for it to be possible to mitigate climate change at a larger scale.
The changes coming over the coming decades will be large, perhaps even more so than the large changes of previous decades. Fortunately, most of the required methods have already been developed and are in use in some parts of the world, although applying these methods to our changing conditions poses a big challenge.
In what ways are food producers prepared?
In Finland, food producers have many unique strengths. Finland’s farmers are very well educated, and its social structure is very even. Although farmers are few in number, they can still be found in nearly every family tree. In addition, the prevalence of secondary occupations influences networking: there may be more farmers with doctorates or who work as professors in other fields in Finland than in any other country.
There is currently a change in age demographic happening among farmers. About 18 per cent of farmers were over 65 years old in 2020, and only 15 per cent were under 40. Within ten years, many new people who have excellent skills in finding information from other countries and developing operations in the long term will enter the field.
While the 2050s may seem far away now, for farmers aged 20–30 who are just starting out, that will be the height of their careers. The need for and the ability to guide production in a direction that will still be good in the decades to come is at a high level.
One strength that I would like to copy in Finland, which is used abroad, is the closer cooperation between research, advisors and farmers. For example, in the United States and Ireland, this chain has been strengthened in the form of agricultural extension activities (“putting research into practice”), where universities and farmers carry out research and development work together, with advisors acting as an interpreter between them.
What kind of change have you experienced yourself as a farmer?
I spent my childhood in the middle of the Finnish grain farming golden age of the 1980s. Agriculture was highly profitable, farming was being developed, and new cultivars and cultivation methods were being tested. In the background, there had been a large change from combined animal and plant production to specialisation and streamlining.
With EU membership in the 1990s, the situation changed and agricultural subsidies became central topics of discussion. Many found the bureaucracy to be too much and changed careers. I took over my family’s farm in the mid 2000s and paid attention to what the fields’ structure had become through one-sided grain farming.
I switched to organic farming to bring in more grasses to the crop rotation, and also to try out new farming methods. At the time, there was a lot of development happening around organic production. However, not everything went as planned, and I had to learn about the significance of the soil’s condition in successful farming. We are still on that road. Every year, we try to develop the farm and the farming methods.
The exceptional droughts and heatwaves of the past years have made the change more challenging. Plants that are sown in the spring are sensitive to drought and temperature stress in certain phases of their growth, meaning that we need to figure out ways to get around the problems caused by the heat.
What do you think about the Finnish discussion around food?
The discussion around food in Finland is rather lofty and far removed from the practices of primary production. On the other hand, the discussion has diverged into many groups.
On the consumer side, there is talk about the land area taken up by meat production, for example, without considering what the sector would do if no fodder is grown there. On the producer side, people are thinking about how meat could be exported from Finland as Finnish consumption decreases.
On the agriculture policy side, people are talking about what kind of subsidies would keep the current production profitable in a changing operating environment. And here in research, we are thinking about what would need to change in order for farming to be successful in a very different world.
I would like to have an overall picture and vision. We need to answer some rather difficult questions: How many million people will need to be fed by agriculture in 2050? To what extent will we use production inputs from outside the country, and where will they come from? Are we aiming for sufficient nutrition or overproduction? What do we do with overproduction?
Another thing I would like to see in the Finnish food discussion is an appreciation for Finnish raw ingredients. We have unique raw ingredients, such as bilberries, oat, rye, lake fish, and caraway, which thrives during the long days.
In addition, our culinary traditions have long included the use of grains and legumes. And if this tradition would be used more broadly, improving the sustainability of the food system would not be a separate, new thing, but, rather, the preservation of old know-how and adapting it for the future.
Do you think urban and rural areas are being pitted against one another in Finland?
If so, what could be done to decrease it and why is it important?
Some kind of opposition is being created and maintained by different kinds of interest groups. There may be less of it than it is made out to be. However, Finland is a highly urbanised country, with 80 per cent of the population living in urban environments. At the same time, there are forests and fields everywhere.
Increasing interaction can reduce the juxtaposition between the two. Different forms of food citizenship, such as participation in the food chain, REKO networks and cooking, are one way. Data management relating to farming is another increasingly common thing. The data collected from farming by satellites and work machinery can make farming more visible in cities, and at the same time, the more precise analysis of data can advance farming in unexpected ways.
For example, the open Sentinel-2 satellite data and its interfaces have been developed in cities, but they are, perhaps, the biggest change in agriculture in the last decade. Agriculture and the food system need more people than just farmers.