Is Finnish food a disappearing tradition, or will domestic meat, milk and grain still be on our plates in the future? Yes, they will be and must be, says Irene Kuhmonen, who studies agriculture and food production.
The sufficiency or lack of food as a resource has always played a role in societal transitions. Yet many farmers are cornered, and the work is done for the love of it.
To the coffee table Irene Kuhmonen brings bread that was baked in the neighbouring municipality, smoked fish from close by, and a pie made from the rhubarb in her own yard.
“As a consumer, I try to favour domestic, organic and locally produced food whenever possible,” she explains. “Unfortunately, it is not always the case, and I also feel inadequate about this occasionally. However, it’s through small acts and choices that an individual can impact the supply.”
Kuhmonen is a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä School of Business and Economics who is analysing the sustainability transition and resilience of the Finnish food system and agriculture in her dissertation. Resilience refers to how well the food system is able to fulfil the purpose of its existence, in other words, to feed the Finns.
The home of the Kuhmonen family in Vesanto is the family farm of Irene’s spouse. The previous generation still made a living from agriculture, but today there are no more cows or vegetable cultivation. The field produces hay for the needs of their two horses and a strawberry patch provides berries for the family to snack on.
Kuhmonen has got to know farmers in the surrounding areas during the ten years she has lived in Savo. She has also seen a decline in the number of farmers up close.
Although a major structural change has taken place already earlier, the situation has become worse for farmers over the last 20 years. Agricultural income has practically taken a downturn, but costs have risen. In addition, agriculture should not only be economically profitable but also environmentally sustainable.
The food system is turning upside down again
Irene Kuhmonen studies with her spouse Tuomas Kuhmonen the food production in Finland, its vulnerabilities, resilience and regime transitions. It is about how society is organized to produce food supplies for its citizens, and what threatens it.
The periods have followed one another in a cyclical pattern while repeating certain steps: the prevalent way flourishes until it slows down and ceases to function. The crisis can be accompanied by release phase, after which the blocks will have to be assembled and rearranged. Examples of crises that have ended food regimes include the Civil War in 1918 and the recession in the 1990s with its breadlines.
“Food and inequality have been strongly associated with all the major social upheavals. Several indicators have predicted the end of an era and the beginning of the next”.
Those same indicators now show researchers that the current global system based on fossil fuels is slowing down and potentially disintegrating. So, what is next?
The global food market is crowded
In Finland, people have always been able to trust the fact that if there is a poor harvest year, products can be imported from elsewhere. So the shelves will not be empty, even if frost damages the crops.
Now the situation has clearly changed. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the input market, but the most recent nail in the coffin was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the “granary of Europe”: five percent of the world’s grain exports are currently trapped there (YLE). Global markets are in turmoil, as demand is greater than supply.
“We cannot think of Finland or Finnish food production as a separate entity from the rest of the world,” Kuhmonen states.
“We should remember that we are part of the global system. While we may not be hungry, others somewhere else are. Hunger has mobilized masses before.”
In addition to extensive human suffering, the war has further aggravated the situation of Finnish farmers. Nitrogen fertiliser used in cultivation is produced with natural gas, which in turn is produced in Russia. Fertilizer prices have skyrocketed and agricultural machinery can’t be used without fuel.
“The food production costs have long been rising faster than the producer prices,” she says. “Many farmers work because they love it, and cover their own costs, for example with income from forestry.”
The form of agriculture is changing, but its significance remains
It is necessary to talk about food crises on a larger scale. The agricultural crisis in Finland, on the other hand, has been talked about for such a long time that the situation might just as well be described as chronic. Things are so complicated that the average person might as well ask: what will we have on our plates in the future?
Kuhmonen hopes that domestically produced food will persist, and that it would possibly be more plant-based. She recognises that there is still a place for animal production as well. But how, where and by what means food will be produced or “made” in the future is another matter. There are two scenarios.
The next regime in the food production in Finland could be agroegological.
“Agriculture would be more self-sufficient and diversified, partially on a smaller scale. Processing would take place also on farms and locally.”
Another alternative view has been named high tech regime.
“This would refer to a food system powered by electricity,” Kuhmonen says. “The production is partially moved from land and livestock into large production facilities with the help of automation, robotics and laboratory technology.”
So, is there a need for agriculture in Finland anymore? According to Kuhmonen there is not a society that would not need it:
“Not many of us have a job as important as those who work in food production. Yet they are mainly the ones between a rock and a hard place. A functioning society needs a functioning food system, and Finland must also assume its responsibility for food security on a global scale.”
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