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25 January 2021
Food systems

Does beef production have a place in sustainable food systems?

Ann-Helen petting Bruna and Bosse on their grazing land

Ann-Helen petting Bruna and Bosse while ensuring they’re doing well.

Photo: Magdalena Knobel, SIANI.

A few miles west of the Swedish town of Uppsala, at the end of a long gravel road across a pine tree grove, lies a small-scale organic farm Sunnansjö Gård, ran by Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen and Gunnar Rundgren. The couple shares a strong will to reconnect with the roots of food production, meat consumption and to bring the discussion about their passion further.

Gunnar has been involved in farming ever since he finished school, both as an organic farmer and consultant, mostly internationally. He has been advocating for sustainable farming and food consumption for several decades. Ann-Helen grew up on a small leased farm on the countryside, but spent most of her life in Stockholm, writing about environmental issues and the influence of food production and consumption choices on our planet’s ecosystems. Their latest book called “The Planet of the Cows” was released in summer 2020 and focuses on the role cows play and have played in sustainable farming, including the controversy of meat consumption.

When they first arrived at the farm, the close-by lake couldn’t even be seen due to the dense vegetation. Six years later, the landscape is now open, thanks to the beef cattle that the couple keep, and the view from the house painted with the traditional Falu red is stunning.

While cows are celebrated for their positive contribution to open landscapes and idyllic sceneries, they are also known for emitting climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases (GHG). SIANI visited the farm on a foggy day and spoke with the Sunnansjö Gård’s owners about their life in the countryside and the reasons why cows have become commonly depicted as climate and sustainability culprits.

The meat consumption controversy

Cows emit methane, a harmful GHG, there’s no doubt about it. This gas is very potent but does disintegrate in the atmosphere over time, as opposed to carbon dioxide. It is as simple as that: If the number of cattle herds doesn’t increase, the methane accumulation in the atmosphere doesn’t get higher either. Methane emissions from cattle come from the cows’ natural metabolism, which is a significant difference to GHG emissions originating in the use of fossil fuels.

Currently, our food systems heavily rely on fossil fuels, from the production of seeds and fertilizers to cooking processes and disposal of waste. Gunnar and Ann-Helen admit it is difficult to drop all materials and processes that require fossil fuels. “The biggest problem is our oil-dependent society,” says Ann-Helen.

In the past decades, Sweden has experienced a sharp increase in meat consumption, mainly in poultry and pork consumption, which happened at the same time as the expansion of fossil fuels. Industrial meat production bloomed in the beginning of the 50ies and the use of fossil fuels for machinery, storage, transportation, pesticides and fertilizers made it possible.

Higher use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and breeding of higher-yielding varieties led to overproduction of cereals. The surplus was then fed to animals as a way to leverage cereal market prices. Monogastric animals like pigs and chickens can eat cereals, so their meat production increased, and the prices dropped significantly, making meat more accessible to consumers.

For Ann-Helen and Gunnar, farming is also a way to take a stand against the state of modern global agriculture and the common consumer beliefs, who often know very little about food production. The issue of meat consumption is extremely polarized. According to the EAT-lancet report, meat consumption should decline drastically in the Global North in order to reach the European Union’s climate goals, bringing up the issues of environmental degradation and animal welfare to the table.

Ann-Helen agrees partly to these claims, emphasizing that the huge climate impact of meat consumption has more to do with the way we operate our food system than with eating meat per se. The problem is the way animals are kept, how their feed is produced and an extractive economic system, where everything is viewed as an enterprise and commodity, while excessive amounts of resources are wasted. But animals give back in non-monetary ways and according to how they have been treated, providing open landscapes, natural fertilizers, nutritious food and a strong feeling of attachment to the land.

The reality of becoming a modern farmer

In Sunnansjö, Gunnar and Ann-Helen found a piece of land where they could dedicate to some of the things they enjoy in life the most: growing and eating good food and writing about that very same topic. They both love the combination of theory and practice they have. They are now able to go back to the roots of food production and showcase how sustainable farming practices can be reconciled with environmental, animal and human well-being. As their land demanded grazing animals they decided to become cow owners themselves, with a bit of reluctance at first, as Ann-Helen explains:

I didn’t expect that the contact with the cows would be so fulfilling, I was even scared of it at the beginning. I would never have imagined how enjoyable caring for them is, we have built real relationships with them.

Gunnar guiding through a part of the Sunnansjö farm, where vegetables, aromatic herbs, oil plants and fruit trees grow.

Photo: Magdalena Knobel

In addition to cows, different plants and crops thrive on the farm, the patches of land around their house serve as testing beds for different vegetables and fruit trees in various growing methods. Gunnar and Ann-Helen learn by doing and try to manage their farm in a circular manner, building back soil organic matter.

They mainly sell their farm produce via channels that allow direct personal contact between producers and farmers, directly on the farm or through channel such as food assemblies. But the sales of vegetables and meat wouldn’t allow Gunnar and Ann-Helen to completely live off their farm. Like many farmers in Sweden, they cultivate land as a hobby on the side of their job.

The main takeaway from the visit to Sunnansjö is that transformation needs to happen throughout our food systems. Blaming meat consumption and cows for GHG emissions takes the focus away from the root causes. Questioning the meat debate, understanding the roots of the problem and reflecting on your own consumption choices could bring us closer to sustainable food systems solutions. This is how we can revive our countryside and cities with healthy food produced in tune with nature.

Reporting by Magdalena Knobel, Communications Consultant at SIANI and Master’s Student in Sustainable Food Systems at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU.