This article examines the environmental impacts of the production of animal-based foods in Finland in terms of biodiversity, climate change and water bodies, based on the latest research data.
The message of the 2019 land-use report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is clear: the food system must change and carbon sinks must be increased if we want to keep the average temperature change and other effects of climate change within tolerable limits.
For some time now, the Finnish political debate has called for more measures to curb climate change and protect the environment, but concrete measures have remained limited. One of the most significant issues that we do not dare to address is the climate and environmental impact of the Finnish meat production.
In Finland, the image is maintained that Finnish agricultural production would somehow be environmentally friendly and that we would not have significant agricultural emissions. Worryingly often we also hear from politicians that eating Finnish meat is even an ecological act. However, this is not the case. The view is usually based on the fact that the main environmental impacts of livestock production are excluded from the inspection, or the comparison is made to some particularly unfavorable benchmark, such as beef production on land cleared from an area of the Amazon rainforest.
Humans have harnessed up to about 72% of the planet’s ice-free land area. The rapid increase in land use in recent decades has accelerated global warming, desertification and habitat loss in unprecedented ways. This means that if we do not change the way we use land, the climate crisis will not be resolvable. At the very least, we need to move towards better agricultural production methods, decreasing deforestation and a plant-based diet.
In the following, we review the environmental impacts of Finnish animal-based food production from different perspectives based on the latest research. The paper is divided into four main themes: impacts on biodiversity, climate and water bodies, and the significance of diet.
Impacts of livestock production on biodiversity
By far the biggest driver of species extinction in Finland is modern agriculture and forestry. Compared to the past, modern agriculture does not provide habitats for wild plants, insects, birds or other animals. Habitat loss is primarily due to land-use change, making the diverse environment poorer, when, for example, a diverse mixed forest is being replaced by a commercial forest. Furthermore, the amount of pasture land has collapsed and the share of crop fields in the land area in Finland has grown steadily since the end of the 19th century. However, most of this new arable land does not produce food for humans. Instead, the crop is used for animal feed.
However, the effects of the production of agricultural products consumed by Finns are not limited to Finland alone, as up to 40% of the land that the products require is located outside Finland. Over 90% of the biodiversity impacts of food produced and consumed in Finland are concentrated to the rest of the world. Globally, an enormous amount of land is used for animal-based food production; it occupies as much as 83% of the total area used for food production. It is estimated that up to 91% of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is due to livestock production. In addition, livestock production accounts for a third of all freshwater consumption in the world. For example, according to an Austrian study, as much as 87% of food production related water consumption was due to livestock production. Animal-based food production is also one of the main reasons for the collapse of the world’s wildlife.
About 3.6 billion kilos of grain are currently produced in Finnish fields. Of this amount, around two billion kilos are fed to animals as feed and only about a tenth is used directly as food for the Finnish population. The rest is exported. Grain is produced in Finland on an area of about one million hectares. In addition, more than 700,000 hectares of land are used to produce forage for livestock. Nevertheless, domestic feed production is far from sufficient to cover the needs of domestic livestock production. Large quantities of soybeans are imported from abroad, especially for feed for chickens and pigs and for fish farming. Soybeans are imported to Finland from outside the EU, for example from Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest is constantly felled for the cultivation of soybean as feed.
About 95% of the soy imported to Finland is used by the feed industry. When a consumer eats domestic meat, he also eats a huge amount of soy – recycled into meat. This soybean could just as well be used for human consumption, with a significantly smaller required acreage. Overall, the food consumed by beef cattle equals the daily caloric intake of 8.7 billion people, so that same amount of food could be fed to all of humanity and a little more.
In this context, it should also be taken into account that less than 10% of the calories and proteins in the food eaten by a mammal are transferred to its body. The rest of the energy is used to maintain the animal’s vital functions and evaporates as heat – so up to 90% of the feed fed to farm animals evaporates as heat into the sky. This means that when recycling food through animals, only a small part of the calories and protein in feed is made available to humans as animal-based products.
An important reason to switch to a plant-based diet is indeed that the amount of vegetables that can be produced on a particular acreage is much greater than the amount of meat for the same acreage. When we have limited land available and produce plant-based food, we are able to feed four times as many people as when meat was produced in the same area. Meat production requires considerably more land, and that land area is then excluded from wildlife and plants, as well as from the carbon-sequestering forest area.
Impact of livestock production on the climate
The global food production system is traditionally estimated to account for about a third of anthropogenic climate emissions, 60-70% of which would come from the production of animal-based foods, such as meat and dairy products. However, this commonly used estimate has recently been increasingly criticized as being too low, as it does not take into account all the effects of livestock production. In addition, it has been suggested that the opportunity cost of livestock production in the form of lost carbon sequestration can even triple the emissions from an animal-based diet.
There is a lot of variation in emissions from livestock production depending on the animal species produced and to some extent also on the production methods used. The most significant individual sources of emissions are cattle digestion, methane emissions from rice cultivation and animal feed concentrates.
The average climate impact of beef is estimated to correspond to about 15 kg of carbon dioxide emissions (per kilogram of meat in CO2 equivalents) and the climate impact of pork and chicken is about 5 kg CO2 / kg of meat. The climate impact of cheese is almost equal to that of beef (10-13 kg CO2 / kg of meat), as making a kilogram of cheese requires ten times as much milk. Emissions from cucumbers or tomatoes grown in greenhouses in the winter are in the same range as pork, while emissions from soybeans, for example, are under 1 kg CO2 / kg of soybeans. The carbon dioxide equivalent describes the global warming effect of emissions of all the different greenhouse gases together.
The climate impact of livestock production is caused both directly by gases and manure produced by the digestive systems of the animals and indirectly by emissions from the production and storage of feed and the storage of manure.
The most important greenhouse gases generated in the food production chain are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, comes from the digestive systems of livestock as well as from manure, and its contribution to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is about a third. Nitrous oxide is released from, for example, nitrogen fertilizers and, indirectly, from land clearing in rainforests for new arable and pasture land. The production of nitrogen fertilizers, in turn, consumes a lot of energy, especially because of the hydrogen production required. Hydrogen is usually produced from natural gas.
Emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from farm animals, manure and soil are reported as actual agricultural emissions. In addition, the reporting sector “land use, land use change and forestry” (the so-called LULUCF sector) reports on the carbon dioxide emissions from land use and soil liming, and the energy sector reports on the emissions from agricultural energy use.
Methane emissions from cattle
Methane is produced during the digestion of food by ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats when microbes living in their rumen process difficult-to-digest hay and fibrous plant parts. Methane leaves the cow’s rumen through belching. One cow produces 250 to 800 liters of methane per day. The annual emissions of one cow can, therefore, correspond to a car journey of up to 10,000 km. In 2018, there were more than 850,000 cattle in Finland, so the climate impact of these emissions is significant. Methane is estimated to be up to 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide (calculated over 20 years).
In some contexts, it has been suggested that Finnish beef production would be insignificant in terms of its climate impact or in some other way good for the environment. Often the idea is based on a “we have to produce beef anyway” justification. Of course, this is not the case – a human fares very well without meat or milk. Finnish cattle belch methane in the same way as cows elsewhere, and this is also acknowledged by dairy manufacturers. Another way to present the emissions from Finnish beef production lower than in reality is to calculate the forests attached to livestock farms as a carbon sink for beef production. However, this method of calculation is incorrect. The forest attached to the farm does not reduce emissions from cattle production, even if it is calculated as an offset for emissions. Global methane emissions are on the rise, and a large proportion of them are due to increasing meat consumption. Beef is eaten considerably more than in the 1950s in Finland as well. A significant reduction in total beef and milk consumption would help curb methane emissions. Progress could already be made by producing, instead of ruminants, food animals whose digestive systems do not produce methane. Examples of such animals are pigs and chickens. The situation becomes more complicated immediately when animal rights are taken into account. In Finland, some cattle get to walk outside or are even allowed to graze, whereas pigs and broilers are usually raised in more industrial intensive farming systems. However, in this article, we will only focus on the environmental impact.
Finland’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions have not significantly decreased in the first decades of the 21st century. In agriculture, it is very difficult to achieve a clear reduction in total emissions without limiting the increase in the area of organic soils or without reducing their tillage. Looking at the entire arable land area in Finland, it is clear that the fields are a source of emissions, not a sink. This is true even if large peat fields with the highest emissions are excluded from the evaluation. According to the research, more carbon was removed from mineral soils, even taking grassland into account, between 1974 and 2009 than was sequestered there.
As stated earlier, the production of animal feed takes up a considerable amount of land. For example, to produce one kilogram of meat requires about ten kilograms of feed. Most of the grain produced in Finland is used for fodder, and more than 700,000 hectares of land is used to produce forage for animals. At the same time, the main reason for the increase in emissions from agriculture is the increasing use of land. It is obvious that agricultural carbon emissions cannot be significantly cut without reversing the trend in meat and milk consumption.
In short, switching to a plant-based diet would significantly reduce the need for agricultural land. Although agricultural land use and the large share of livestock production in land use have been clearly identified as the main causes of agricultural emissions, Finnish climate policy has not yet included proposals for halting the growth of arable land or reducing livestock production. Even the restoration of high-emission peat fields has not been proposed as a way to reduce emissions. With regard to land use, only the following actions have been proposed:
- limiting land clearing by not granting compensation for environmental harm and natural handicaps for arable land cleared after 2004, and
- with the exception of young and starting farmers, not using the possibility provided by EU regulations to allocate entitlements to financial aid to all land areas where they are lacking, as this would also allocate payments for felled forests.
These measures, defined for agricultural land use, are far from sufficient in terms of bringing about significant emission reductions.
Peatlands used for manure application
Peatlands are a speciality of Finnish emission sources. They are a major source of emissions in the agricultural sector and account for about 50% of all emissions in the sector, although they cover only about 10% of all arable land. A considerable amount of carbon is stored in northern peatlands. The drainage of a bog into a field leads to the gradual decomposition of the peat layer. As a result, the drainage of peatland in Finland has led to annual carbon dioxide emissions of more than six million tonnes. The average lifecycle emissions per unit of products produced from peat fields are, therefore, ten times higher than the emissions from products obtained from mineral soils. The increase in emissions from peat fields is so significant that it is in the same range as other agricultural emissions combined. In 2016, emissions from peatlands accounted for almost 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Finland.
Although the high emission intensity has been known, the area of peat fields in Finland increased by more than 40,000 hectares between 2000 and 2014. Peat fields have been cleared in Finland mainly as a side effect of milk and beef production. This is because Finnish legislation requires that a livestock farm has a sufficient amount of arable land to which the manure produced by the animals can be applied. The purpose of the law is to reduce agricultural pollution of water bodies. However, agricultural subsidies and the growth of farms have created incentives for the clearing of land for new fields. This new arable land has been cleared especially in the northern peatlands. In addition to all this, the clearing of peatland also causes pollution of water bodies.
Tens of thousands of hectares of peatland have been drained into agricultural fields in recent decades. The Finnish state supports the clearing of peatlands with millions of euros.
Impact on emissions of using forage
It is sometimes claimed that Finnish cattle breeding is sustainable because, unlike in many other countries, a large proportion of Finnish cattle feeds on grassland. Grassland is presented as a natural part of the Finnish environment. However, we are not talking about flowering, diverse natural meadows, but fields where a few types of sown grasses are grown instead of grain. Grasslands in Finland are typically part of the crop rotation and only some fields are permanently in grass cultivation. Grasslands do not sequester carbon permanently, however, and so, carbon dioxide is released also in grass cultivation. The opportunity cost must also be taken into account. If livestock production were reduced, these grasslands, usually artificially fertilized for forage production, could be released for other uses. They could, for example, be afforested or managed as more diverse pastures (the so-called traditional biotope). This could significantly reduce the environmental impact of the agricultural sector. The carbon stock does decrease less in grass cultivation than in arable farming alone, but even so, grasslands are not a significant carbon store in Finland.
Although from an emission reduction point of view, grass rotation can be recommended, it by no means compensates for other emissions from meat production. Emissions from cattle, for example, are in a class of their own, because as ruminants, cattle are constantly producing methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Therefore, most emissions from cattle are caused by digestion and cannot be made carbon neutral by grass rotation.
Organic production does not have a significant role in reducing emissions either. Although fertilizer emissions are eliminated in organic production, organic farming requires a larger land area to produce a crop equivalent to intensive production. This also results in more felled forests. Several studies have indeed found that, depending on production methods, organic farming is often an even worse alternative for the climate than intensive production when emissions are calculated proportional to the amount of crop produced.
Impact of feed imported to Finland on deforestation elsewhere
As already mentioned, imported feed is used in particular in the production of fish, chicken and pork. A lot of soy feed is imported to Finland, the cultivation of which has led to the cutting down of rainforests in South America. Transforming a rainforest into a field for soybean cultivation causes significant greenhouse gas emissions (up to 17.8 kg CO2 eq per kilogram of soybeans, when soybean emissions are normally less than 1 kg CO2 eq). Although chicken is a smaller problem in terms of its carbon footprint than beef, poultry farming on the current scale requires feed imports. If meat consumption in Finland were lower and if it were possible to use only domestic feed, Finnish meat production would not cause the destruction of rainforests. The use of domestic feed would also increase the degree of self-sufficiency in food production and it would have a positive effect on the security of supply.
Packaging and storage
The type of food packaging is of little relevance to the overall impact of food production. In general, packaging accounts for less than 2% of total lifecycle emissions of products. As far as packaging is concerned, all that matters is that it protects the product from ending up as food waste. Especially processed products and products of animal origin are perishable. The FAO estimates that up to a third of the food produced is lost, resulting in unnecessary emissions from its production. Preventing food waste is, therefore, one of the easiest ways to reduce emissions from food production.
In addition, with regard to animal-based products, better care must be taken with cold storage and the maintenance of the cold chain also during the transfer of products which results in more emissions than with products of plant origin.
Up to 82% of the climate impact of food production is generated on farms, so the impact of transport on the carbon footprint of food is less than is generally thought. If a Finnish consumer walks to a convenience store and buys sheep meat transported from New Zealand by cargo ship, the transport emissions per kilo of meat may be even lower than if the same consumer drives to a farm to buy a small amount of Finnish sheep meat there.
However, local food can have other benefits. For example, when the environmental effects of food production are observed, for example, at a nearby beach, measures to prevent the effects are more acceptable.
Impacts of livestock production on water bodies
There have been significant changes in factors affecting the state of the Baltic Sea in recent decades. The nutrient load on the Baltic Sea has decreased significantly over the last decade. This has happened especially due to wastewater treatment in the St. Petersburg area. At the same time, however, the nutrient load from Finnish agriculture has not eased. Nutrients continue to flow into the water bodies from agricultural fields of southern and south-western Finland. This puts a strain on local water systems. While other water pollution sources have decreased, none of the goals in Finnish agriculture to reduce the load on the Baltic Sea have been reached. Agriculture is currently the most significant pollution source for coastal waters in Finland.
In 2008-2012, agriculture accounted for more than half of the phosphorus and nitrogen load. Contrary to what one might imagine, agriculture accounts for a significant share of discharges into the waters in and around major cities. For example, in the Archipelago Sea off the city of Turku, agriculture accounts for up to three quarters of both the phosphorus and nitrogen loads. There is also a lot of intensive agriculture in the vicinity of large cities. Industry, fish farming and population centers continue to play an important role as nutrient sources, but their phosphorus and nitrogen loads have decreased significantly at least in recent decades.
Compared to neighbouring countries, Finland’s discharges into the Baltic Sea stand out unfavourably in the phosphorus load map published by Helsingin Sanomat.
The Finnish Environment Institute SYKE monitors Finnish anthropogenic nutrient discharges into the Baltic Sea, as well as the sources of pollution. Agriculture is the most significant pollution source in all Finnish coastal areas, both in terms of nitrogen and phosphorus. Agriculture’s share in water pollution is so significant that reductions in other sectors will not have a sufficient effect on improving the state of the Baltic Sea unless agricultural pollution also decreases.
Water pollution from agriculture can be influenced in two ways: either by limiting discharges through legislation or by changing eating habits. According to SYKE, the average Baltic Sea footprint of a Finn leads to the growth of more than 1,300 kg of algae, e.g. blue-green algae. Food production accounts for 60% of the footprint. The most effective way to influence one’s own Baltic Sea footprint is to reduce the consumption of meat and dairy products. As agricultural products are also exported, it is essential to focus directly on agricultural production as well.
Ways of reducing the environmental impact of livestock production
Reducing the environmental impact of livestock production by technological means is insufficient without a significant reduction in meat consumption. In the current situation, the introduction of new technologies would take too long to have any chance of turning the trends towards climate goals. The negative effects need to be addressed immediately, and therefore, radical reduction in consumption is definitely the best way.
The emissions and other pollution from Finnish agriculture and food consumption can be reduced, for example, by the following means:
- consuming radically less meat and dairy products – up to almost 60% of the milk consumed in Finland is eaten in the form of cheese, which has a climate effect almost equal to that of beef (10-13 kg CO2 per kilogram of cheese)
- consuming meat from non-ruminant farmed animals, such as chicken or pork, instead of beef
- using vegetables according to the season: in the winter, it’s best to eat root vegetables and frozen berries – and to forget about vegetables produced in greenhouses – and in the summer, it’s time to enjoy fresh, seasonal products, such as lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes
- replacing farmed fish with domestic wild pike, roach, vendace, perch or herring – catching wild fish does not require separate farming or separate feed production unlike fish farming
- however, the best effects are achieved by switching to a completely vegan or at least vegetarian diet; the so called flexitarian diet, when it means eating meat once a month, for example, already has significant effects
AGRICULTURE / FOOD PRODUCTION
- halting the clearing of peatlands and reducing emissions from peatlands already cleared by appropriate measures
- improving the energy efficiency of production facilities and using low-emission energy on farms
- increasing the ability of arable land to act as a carbon sink and looking after the structure of arable land
- utilizing organic farming methods (e.g. biological nitrogen fixation, crop rotation)
- looking for ways to reduce methane emissions from cattle, for example with seaweed feeding
- using methane produced from manure as fuel
- reducing nutrient run-offs into water bodies, for example, by having enough protected areas and with other measures
- steering consumption through taxation, for example, with a meat tax
- steering consumption by using CO2 labels on food products
It is important to note that properly managed agricultural land can also act as a carbon sink. Estimates of carbon sequestration in agricultural soils have been made at the global level, and if this estimate of the global carbon sequestration capacity of agricultural fields is applied roughly to Finnish arable land area, the theoretical emission reduction potential is about 1–10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The true reduction potential is probably in the order of a few million tonnes of CO2.
When reducing negative environmental impacts from food production, it is equally important to develop better agricultural production methods as it is to influence food consumption. In the Western world, far too much food is currently consumed, and this is particularly obvious in the overconsumption of meat. For example, the average meat portion size in Finland has increased considerably in recent decades. On average, a Finn eats more than 80 kilos of meat a year. Nutritionally, such high meat consumption is not justified. According to a recently published study by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), eight out of ten Finnish men eat more meat than recommended – and red meat up to seven times as much as recommended. A quarter of women also eat more red meat than recommended. More than 500g of red or processed meat (in cooked meat weight) per week should not be eaten. Exceeding this maximum limit is harmful to health. The need for protein from a health point of view can be covered by much smaller amounts of meat, or the need can be met entirely with vegetable protein. The fact is that reducing portion sizes to meet real needs and replacing meat with vegetable protein will both reduce food costs and the carbon footprint – while preventing many health problems and thus reducing affluence related healthcare costs.
The importance of diet
The recent “1.5-degree lifestyle” study by the Finnish Innovation Fund (Sitra) compares emissions between different types of food. The upper dashed line in the figure below depicts the current average consumption and the lower dashed lines the targets for 2030 and 2050. If the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are to be achieved, the consumption of meat and dairy products in particular, but also fish and eggs, must be significantly reduced.
When looking at individual lifestyles (figure below), changes in diet and travel habits have the greatest impact on an individual’s carbon footprint.
According to a Finnish study comparing nutritionally balanced lunch portions, meals following an omnivorous, mixed diet burden the climate 2-3 times compared to vegetarian meals.
Several international peer-reviewed studies have also found that a vegan diet is always a lower emission and more environmentally friendly alternative to a mixed diet, regardless of production methods. For example, the original purpose of a study by the University of Oxford was to find out whetherenvironmentally friendly animal production exists. However, even the lowest emission animal-based products have a greater environmental impact than similar plant-based products. According to the study, without meat and milk production, land use could be reduced by up to 75% and even so, the entire planet’s population could be fed. The study also finds that while meat and milk production take up 83% of the utilized agricultural area and cause 60% of food-related emissions, they produce only 18% of calories and 37% of protein. The same study also corrected the oft-repeated misconception that meat produced with grass forage was somehow environmentally friendly – red meat is always the worst choice for the environment, regardless of production methods. In addition, fish farming is worse than its reputation as a source of emissions.
Another similar study found that food-related emissions could be reduced by 29% by switching to a diet that follows nutritional recommendations, by 63% by switching to a vegetarian diet, and by 70% by switching to a vegan diet.
Most of the land used for agriculture, agricultural eutrophication of the Baltic Sea, species loss, and land-use related greenhouse gas emissions are primarily the result of livestock production. Significant amounts of greenhouse gases are generated directly in beef and milk production in the form of methane emissions typical of ruminants. Meat produced in Finland indirectly contributes to the loss of biodiversity through feed production, e.g. in the Amazon rainforest. Therefore, the environmental impacts of Finnish meat and farmed fish extend far beyond the domestic borders.
It is often argued that livestock production, such as the current one, is needed for security of supply. However, there is no justification for claiming that resource-intensive livestock production would be a particularly good way to prepare for crisis situations. Security of supply often justifies just about any agricultural production, but policy decisions should be based on a sensible assessment of how a goal that is perceived important can best be achieved. It is clear that the current level of livestock production would not even be possible with only domestic resources, i.e. without imported feed.
Cattle farming is also often justified by saying that ruminants are able to convert grass into protein, milk and meat fit for human consumption. This claim is, however, not justified in the Finnish context. A large amount of arable land in Finland is used as pasture and forage, while this land could also be used to grow food crops for humans.
However, livestock production is a difficult issue in regional policy. Grain production for humans is concentrated in the southern parts of the country, while cattle farms, for example, are further north. If we prioritize domestic vegetarian food for environmental reasons, its production can easily be concentrated to the South, and most of the agricultural land elsewhere then becomes “unnecessary”. Understandably, this can be a concern in the North, and how that concern is addressed is an important political issue. Would it be better to support the farms in the North for smaller but more ecologically sustainable activities? For example, could we generate income for farms from building or maintaining traditional biotopes and carbon sequestration? Income could also come from small-scale but sustainable and biodiversity-friendly livestock production and nature tourism. Increasing the amount of land in its natural state and supporting the growth of biodiversity could also increase domestic tourism.
Keeping the northern parts of Finland populated does not have to mean deliberately supporting environmentally harmful production structures. Farms should be supported for moving into best practice, taking the overall picture into account, while it should be recognized that agricultural subsidies to date may have encouraged producers to make costly investments. This might mean that farmers require assistance in dealing with the debt burden. Farmers must be supported during the transition period, when greenhouse gas emissions for the whole of Finland will be lowered to zero and below in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
Responsibility for the environmental impact of food production cannot be left to the agricultural sector alone. We also need to look at the consumption side and how it can be influenced. Policy makers have numerous ways to influence our consumption habits. The ever diversifying supply of plant proteins makes changing diets in a more vegetarian direction easier. This also offers opportunities for new business. Finland can be a pioneer especially in the research, development and production of plant-based protein products suitable for northern conditions. It is also possible to develop products suitable for export. After all, we have already witnessed the world conquest of the Swedish Oatly. We also have all the prerequisites for conquering new markets with Finnish plant-based protein products.
Finnish Greens for Science and Technology (Viite)
Johanna Kohvakka, Chairperson
Jani-Petri Martikainen, Vice-Chairperson