A man looking at meat at the supermarket.

How can we eat sustainably in the Nordics?

When the EAT-Lancet Commission released their report in January 2019 it created a lot of interest. Finally, a serious investigation into food supply – what is needed for the Earth's growing population to eat and live healthily, without compromising planetary boundaries. But was the commission correct?​
We all need to eat. But how should we eat? That is a question to which we still don't really know the answer. On the initiative of physician and philanthropist Gunhild Stordalen, environmental scientists from around the world worked with the organisation EAT to produce unified information about food, and its relationship to the planet and our health.

With world-leading nutritional researcher, physician and Harvard University professor Walter Willett, and environmental professor Johan Rockström at the lead, EAT released their first major report on January 17, 2019, in The Lancet: "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems”.

“Switch to healthier and more climate-smart food quickly” was the main message, as written in a debate article in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter to coincide with the launch. The Swedish Food Agency commissioned EAT to look further, more specifically at the Nordic countries. The Stockholm Resilience Center, which coordinates EAT's work, returned in March with their work, a new report focusing on food consumption and production in the Nordic region.

“I really welcome this, as a first major effort to make conclusions around food, health and sustainability. But afterwards, there was surprisingly little discussion about the conclusions, and how to achieve them,” says Rikard Landberg, Professor and Head of the Division of Food Science at Chalmers.

Not enough consideration of the Nordic diet

Rikard Landberg contacted five colleagues who, like him, had been assigned by the Chalmers Foundation to organise a seminar on food. In October, they gathered experts to discuss the EAT Lancet Commission’s conclusions, and what more is needed to put them into practice.

“The EAT-Lancet report makes its Nordic recommendations based on a global average diet. In the Nordic report, they do not sufficiently account for the diet we eat today,” says Christel Cederberg, agronomist and Associate Professor at Chalmers specialising in sustainable agriculture.

“They also do not look at culture and traditions, a perspective which is actually recommended in the larger, original EAT report in The Lancet. Nor do they recognise that different population groups have different needs.”

"Unhealthy to eat meat in the quantities we eat today"

Today, Swedish people consume dairy products equivalent to around 375 kg of milk per capita each year, with cheese making up more than half of this. In global terms, that is high. The EAT-Lancet Commission advises a 75 percent reduction by 2050.

Even more drastic is the target for red meat consumption – down to one-seventh of today's level, on average for everyone, regardless of where and how the meat is produced. The planet cannot support more, according to the report.
Christel Cederberg och Rikard Landberg
“Yes, it is unhealthy to eat meat in the quantities we do today. The overall picture from various studies shows that most of us – although not all – could lower certain health risks by reducing their meat intake. To what extent is up for discussion,” says Rikard Landberg. 

“Middle-aged men eat the most meat today. And this is where one of the problems lies with the report that addresses the same advice to everyone. Women of childbearing age, and pregnant or older women often have problems getting enough iron and B12, and this is mainly achieved through meat. The Commission recommends these groups take supplements to get enough vitamin B12 in particular. It may be so, but I think there are concerns around other nutrients too. Iron is difficult to absorb from plants,” says Rikard Landberg.

Christel Cederberg shakes her head. She thinks of the implications.
“It's strange that young women of childbearing age must take full responsibility, while middle-aged men can eat happily,” she says.

Scientifically disputed conclusions

Rikard Landberg believes that important aspects have not been considered in the conclusions, and that the Commission has not looked at different countries’ conditions in its models.

“We will never be able to provide the Nordic population with as many nuts as they propose, for example.”

The great possibilities of the sea are also not sufficiently addressed, and have been given a far too unimportant role, he believes. Seafood can be a vital contribution to the Nordic diet as an important and sustainable source of protein. And there is great potential for innovation here, according to Landberg.

Furthermore, the planetary boundaries – which are the basis for what is considered sustainable in both reports – are scientifically disputed, Christel Cederberg points out.

“The boundaries given for what the Earth can handle are difficult to ascertain. There are great uncertainties surrounding them. They rest to some extent on values, I would say.”

In addition, she believes that the environmental scientists behind the EAT-Lancet report draw too far-reaching conclusions about the environment. They do not use the right data or indicators for chemicals and do not look adequately at the quality of agricultural land, she believes, pointing out methodical problems. 

“There is a big difference between different types of meat, or different types of fruit for example. Biodiversity is extremely important but is often overlooked in the life-cycle analyses that receive a great deal of attention today.”

What needs to be done going forward?
“It is an excellent initiative and provides direction. But we still need more knowledge, and better methods, to be able to translate this into clear, quantitative advice that is more suited to our conditions,” says Rikard Landberg.

Christel Cederberg believes that the focus must be on sensible agriculture, something where the Nordic countries are already far ahead.
“We have to make agriculture fossil-free in a fairly short time. Farming in such a way that we capture more carbon. I would like to see more innovation projects together with the food industry and agriculture,” she says.


Text: Christian Borg
Photo: Adobe Stock & Christian Borg  

Facts: The Chalmers Foundation prize winner 2019
Christel Cederberg and Rikard Landberg are two of the six dedicated food scientists who jointly received the Chalmers Foundation's prize in 2019 for their efforts. The article text is based on an interview with them.
 They share the award with Fredrik Hedenus and Stefan Wirsenius at the Department of Space, Earth and Environment and Karin Jonsson and Nathalie Scheers at the Department of Biology and Biotechnology. Together, all six organised a seminar in October on food, health and sustainability.

Challenges and opportunities in the Nordic countries
These are today's clearest lessons about food, health and sustainability for us in the Nordic countries:

Eat more: Peas, lentils and other legumes are beneficial sources of protein with low climate impact. Nuts and seeds contain useful fats. Choose locally grown! Vegetables and root vegetables contain useful fibres, minerals, vitamins and bioactive substances. In the Nordic countries, we should eat more seafood – and cut down on meat. The sea has great potential as a sustainable source of protein, if we eat the right species and look beyond just fillets. Fish is good for the brain and lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes. Fatty fish such as herring and mackerel are especially useful and sustainable.

Replace: Whole grains from different cereals have a number of positive health effects. Increase the proportion of whole grains – bran and sprouts, for example contain a lot of dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins – and reduce the amount of white flour. Replace animal fats with vegetable fats. This lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Domestic berries and fruits should increase, but not imports. Many people do not get enough. Most eat enough protein. A higher proportion of vegetarian protein is good for both human health and the planet.

Eat less: Generally, we eat too much beef and pork. If you eat a lot of red meat – reduce consumption, for your own health. The most damaging thing for the climate is our consumption of beef. Swedes eat most cheese and milk in the world and should, on the whole, cut down on dairy products for the climate. Reduce sugar, salt and alcohol. These foods generally do not contribute to our health and are a burden on the earth's resources. In large doses they are unhealthy.


Published: Wed 08 Jan 2020.