Historical and Experiential Analysis of the Sustainability of Danish Food System
As I began my blog, I stated that food is both an ecological and personal act; where environmental and cultural traditions are woven together. The fact remains true for me. As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to pursue a more research-based investigation of the history of food in Denmark to share with you. Hopefully, this allows us to more deeply understand the society as a whole, particularly in light of its New Nordic movement and its position as a global leader in sustainability. With regulations more stringent than the European Union, Denmark has addressed animal welfare, the application of antibiotics, the use of fertilizer, and currently offers the largest array of organic produce in the world. Due to an extensive history of cooperative farming, such larger ownership incentivizes agriculture, particularly dairy and hog industries, to comply to higher standards. Yet modern agriculture has created divisive structures predicated upon productivity and yield. A study of Danish agriculture allows us to see the ways they run counter to traditional industrial agriculture and where they align. To understand a product’s ecological engagement, one must contemplate the holistic cycle of food in Denmark, including food waste, biogas, and permaculture. In order to pursue a sustainable future, every system must be analyzed for characteristics that are both socially and environmentally sustainable as well as successful enough to consider implementation elsewhere. One must wonder at the applicability of the Danish food system and whether other countries should, and could, follow suit.
Historically, Denmark’s agricultural system differentiated itself from other European countries through the egalitarianism of its landed-estate system. As concepts of the Enlightenment disseminated throughout the 18th century, Denmark began to adopt radical reforms in agriculture and estate management. Such ideology of freedom and equality saw to the abolishment of adscription for peasants across the country (Tipsmark, 2020). Prior to 1788, peasants were tied to the land they tended through serfdom and such indentured servitude forced individuals to remain under the control of the landlord. Yet the Great Agricultural Commission recognized soil as Denmark’s greatest resource, and thus began to value peasants as stewards of that soil. In this way, the end of adscription by Frederik VII opened up the potential for peasant ownership of land. These land reforms were made possible by the continuous rise in grain prices between 1750 and 1815 (Tipsmark, 2020). The agrarian reforms led to a reorganization of the fields, in which each tenant had one piece of land by which he could make his own cultivation decisions. This deconstruction of village communities and transition to freeholdings allowed peasants to establish estates with good land conditions while becoming free farmers with ownership over their land. Other enlightenment thinkers and prominent Danish leaders such as Grundtvig ushered in the establishment a more efficient taxation system that allowed farmers to flourish without drowning in debt. Following these reforms nearly 600 equally sized manor farms emerged, creating an independent social class of land-owning farmers—who remain a powerful political force in the country. In some ways, these farmers formed a basis for the democratic coup in 1848 (Andersen, 2008).
Furthermore, the Danish agricultural production experienced another major shift nearly a century later. In the 1870’s, due to the increased production of crops from Russia and the U.S., grain prices in Denmark dropped dramatically. This shift made Danish farms no longer profitable, resulting in a drastic shift from agriculture to livestock and dairy. A decade later, the first producer cooperatives were formed in Jutland, shaping the system and culture indefinitely. These farmers set up a Dairy on a co-op basis, which allowed them to buy more modern equipment and hire skilled dairy professionals, thus resulting in improved quality products for which they could charge higher prices (Lidegaard, 2009). The subsequent cooperative movement promoted larger ownership of farms on a voluntary basis. A farm would be owned and run jointly by its members, who mutually seek to attain the common goal and share the profits. Such reorganization ultimately led to the collectives complying with higher standards of their production methods and sanitary measures. This simultaneously allowed for a deeper understanding of the larger context in which they operated, demanding greater information and better education. By 1900, there were 950 local cooperative dairies in Denmark whose joint decisions, solidarity and political influence offer a model of socially sustainable community building. Many of these co-ops are still used today as 97% of Danish milk is from co-op dairy companies (Lidegaard, 2009). Modern cooperative subsidairy’s include Super Brugsen, Fakta, Irma and Danisco.
Thus, the food and agricultural system that exists today holds the traits of its history. The food culture is known for its dairy and yogurts like skyre for breakfast (morgenmad), open face sandwich (smørrebrød), fish for lunch (frokost), and potatoes, meat, a little bit of veggies and pickled cabbage for dinner (aftensmad). Today, many top Danish dishes include pork such as pork chop with stew cabbage, pork belly with apples, herring with potato, pork belly with potatoes and parsley sauce, and pork smørrebrød. Thus, there are more pigs in Denmark than people, producing 28 million pigs a year, although 90% of the hog production is exported and is essential to the economy. More than 60% of the land is cultivated with wheat, barley, oats and rye; yet, 80% of the production of that grain is used for animal feed (Danish Food and Gastronomy). Diets that depend on higher trophic levels of pig meat are worse for the environment in terms of water consumption, production of methane, and waste lagoons.
However, the Danish theoretical framework encircles sustainability—a word that is derived from the Latin sustenere meaning to uphold, keep in existence. This concept in farming holistically encompasses maintaining essential ecological process and life support systems, preserving genetic and soil diversity in farming for future generations (Asquith and Vellinga). Therefore, the Danish system is simultaneously characterized by its progressive ideals of sustainability alongside heavy pork and dairy production—two seemingly contradictory characteristics. The Danish system is complex because of its exports, which depend on the demand of other countries. In this way, it is still complicit by producing both ethically and environmentally degrading externalities. That being said, Denmark’s food system remains one of the most progressive and productive in the entire world. The Danish Rural Development program seeks to improve water quality and reduce phosphorus emissions (Strøm and Kvakkestad). The use of medicine in dairy cows is strictly regulated and controlled, while hormones and growth promoters are banned, unlike in the US. With a population of 5.8 million inhabitants, food production is high enough to feed 15 million people. This nation has the third largest food and agricultural cluster in the world with more than 175,000 people employed by private and public companies (Denmark—A Farming Country).
Many also note that the diligence in the Danish food system to animal welfare and organic farming outweighs the detriment of its hog farming. The country continues to consume the greatest proportion of organic produce in the world and 12% of Danish farmland is dedicated to organics (Denmark—A Farming Country). The high volume of organics actually allows the price of organic foods to be lowered, increasing the availability and access to such products. Every Dane spends close to €139 every year on organic food while neighboring countries such as Germany spend an average of €71. Furthermore, it is more profitable for a dairy farm to be organic while non-organic dairy is at a net loss in Denmark. The New Nordic food movement has also gained global attention for its dedication to healthy, local, fresh, ethical and simple dishes (Equally, Happy, Green). These dishes seek to reflect the changing seasons which is an aspect of food that is often overlooked. Such an approach re-envisions all that traditional foods can be, with a strong focus on health and ethical production philosophy.
In terms of gastronomy and taste, the New Nordic movement seeks to revitalize repetitive flavors of traditional Danish foods that were never known for their remarkable characteristics (Danish Food and Gastronomy). This movement was built upon a framework laid out in the manifesto written by some of the region’s top chefs and food professionals—an explicit method of communication goals and hopes in a concerted effort to achieve a socially and environmentally conscious food revolution. Through a ten-point manifesto they laid down the foundation of values upon which a new Nordic cuisine must be based. The restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen has been deemed the best restaurant in the world by many reviewers as flavors and identity intermingle. In this way, dining becomes an experience based on the engagement of all of the senses. All of the food sourced to NOMA is hand selected for its environmental principles and circular economy; often the prevailing image is of foraging in one’s backyard. The slow food initiative also points to careful consideration of what we put in our bodies, taking the time to truly taste and appreciate both the biodiversity and the cultural diversity of our food.
It is also important to note the way that the end of the cycle of food is given close attention, particularly in Copenhagen. Food waste is a conversation in all businesses, from restaurants to bakeries to supermarkets, aging food is cut in price, or given away for free to reduce the loss of edible food products. It even has become a parameter of competition between businesses and apps of all kind have been developed which seek to connect the producer to the consumer in a direct way. In addition, Denmark burns its waste in a garbage incineration plant to produce a biogas and effectuate efficient garbage removal. Urban agriculture, such as ØsterGRO and Tagtomat, are another notable aspect of Copenhagen that focuses on vertical farming to supplement their agricultural sector in innovative ways (“Tagtomat”).
Moreover, in many ways Denmark is different than the countries that may seek to mirror their agricultural model. In fact, in scale alone, Denmark is smaller than many individual states in the United States. Yet it was previously noted that the nations agricultural productivity was three times its necessary output; however, food deserts and access become less of an issue in a small, relatively equal society. Denmark also differs in its governance, a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary democracy, free health care and free education (Official Website of Denmark, Factsheet). While Big Agricultural lobbies continue to prevail over farm workers’ rights in the US; Denmark ardently fights against all forms of corruption. Yet both countries were founded upon Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality. Both countries are gateway countries with the possibility of connecting over distances, rather than dividing. The United States has much to learn about the Danish spirit of collaboration, and the methods by which they seek to give care to the world around them. In recognizing that our soil, and our planet, is our most valuable resource, Denmark can teach us more than we know.
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Asquith, Lindsay, and Marcel Vellinga. Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Century: Theory, Education and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2006.
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Tipsmark, Kasper Lynge, editor. Landed Estates, Enlightenment and Agrarian Reforms. Dansk Center For Herregårdsforskning, www.danskeherregaarde.dk/en/themes/fussingoe/landed-estates-enlightenment-and-agrarian- reforms. Accessed 21 Apr. 2020.