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How to make the Swedish food system sustainable

The production of food currently accounts for 25–30% of all global greenhouse gas emissions – and it is responsible for destroying much of the world’s biodiversity. In addition, the world’s growing population means that increasing numbers of people will need to put food on the table. Now, the Mistra Food Futures project intends to get to the root of this challenge. The project aims to enable a research-based transformation of food so it improves human health and planet health alike. 

In the years ahead, the food industry risks becoming society’s worst climate culprit. The transport sector is the worst today (or it was before the pandemic which drastically reduced traffic-based emissions), but cars, aviation and other modes of transport will soon be cleaner by being powered by electricity or more sustainable fuels. By contrast, emissions caused by the food industry are expected to rise 30–40% by 2050. 

– “We cannot save the planet without changing the processes that put food on the table: livestock breeding, farming, industrial processing, packaging, the food choices we consumers make, and so on,” says Ulf Sonesson, Associate Professor and Head of Research and Business Development in Bioeconomy and Health/Agriculture and Food at RISE. 

– “If we continue consuming food at current levels, as the world population continues to grow, then we will have to stop consuming everything else – clothing, home heating, electronics, cars – to achieve the climate targets. If we sit around naked in caves and eat, this will work out. If we don’t want this, something’s got to change.  

Leave no plant, packaging or policy unturned 

Reducing emissions of food-related greenhouse gases will require sweeping changes in many areas. The Mistra Food Futures project, scheduled to last for eight years, is led by SLU and involves the retail, agricultural and food industries, as well as authorities and regions.  They must leave no stone – or should we say no plant, hamburger, packaging, technological breakthrough, policy, law, dietary habit or combine harvester – unturned in our quest to identify obstacles to and possibilities for creating alternative – and far more sustainable – food systems.  

RISE is a research partner in many parts of the programme but also contributes innovative system development and leads the work of commencing the implementation.  

We cannot save the planet without changing the processes that put food on the table

Digitised farmland enhances sustainability

An example of an area with great potential is the digitisation of agriculture, not least in the field known as precision agriculture.  

– “For the past decade or, we’ve been measuring crop health on every square metre, and dosing pesticides and nutrients accordingly. This eliminates applying excess pesticide or fertiliser across the entire field just to be on the safe side, which undermines efficiency and generates unnecessary emissions.  The vision is to be able to care for each plant individually. This significantly reduces the need to spray them with pesticides. At the same time, data is collected from the fields. This, too, can help make the food chain more sustainable. 

– “For example, bread makers can be informed about the quality the wheat they can expect when it reaches the factory. This will enable them to adjust how much to boost the protein and to keep from doing more than necessary.  

Small-scale fields with large-scale efficiency 

Robotic machines can also make a big difference.  

– “RISE operates a testbed in the field of digitised agriculture and there are more projects internationally. One vision is that small combine harvesters or weeding robots could run in the fields 24/7 like self-driving lawn mowers at home in the garden. This makes it possible to have small-scale fields with large-scale efficiency. Narrowing fields and interspersing them with different types of crops maintains quality and productivity, and strengthens biodiversity. 

“I think and hope that this will launch many processes of change” 

The strength of the project is to look at the entire food system, with all the important components of the food production chain. Environmental, economic and social dimensions are discussed and considered. 

– “We started in September, and the first stage will end in four years, the second in eight. I believe and hope that this will launch many processes of change, and incentivise all operators by giving them the tools to do the right thing,” Ulf Sonesson says. 

Ulf Sonesson

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