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Published: 2020-09-10

Swedish food strategy questioned in book on Arctic food security

PROFILE - If our goal is food sovereignty in the North, then we better start counting calories and nutrients! This is the opinion of researcher Lena Maria Nilsson at Arcum, the Arctic Research Center of Umeå University, who in a recently released research anthology questions Sweden's National food strategy from a Sami and Arctic perspective.

Image: Lena Maria Nilsson

Together with her colleagues Professor Kamrul Hossein and Doctor Thora Martina Herrmann at the universities of Rovaniemi, Finland and Montreal, Canada respectively, Lena Maria Nilsson has edited a scientific anthology on food security in the Arctic, which is released today, September 10th. The anthology explores challenges facing food security, sustainability, sovereignty, and supply chains in the Arctic, with a specific focus on Indigenous Peoples.

Traditional food staples such as stock fish and reindeer meat are explored, as well as food production depending on modern technology, such as community greenhouse projects in the Canadian Arctic and extraction of the rock apatite in northernmost Russia for the production of fertilizers.

In one of the chapters, Lena Maria Nilsson, researcher at Arcum, the Arctic Research Center of Umeå University, reviews the Swedish Food Strategy of 2017 from a Sami and Arctic perspective. She compares traditional Sami knowledge on survival in the Arctic with values expressed in the Swedish Food Strategy and has discovered some important differences. While focus traditionally used to be on nutritional values, that is achieving bodily satiety from food, and on sharing and collaboration between different ethnicities, the goals of today’s Food Strategy focus on business values and increasing the production value of local food.

If you buy a kilo potato for €1 today and tomorrow buy another kilo potato for €10, then the production value has increased, while the nutritional value has not

-"The problem with these modern goals is, that they make our policymakers act irrational", Lena Maria Nilsson explains. "If you buy a kilo potato for 1 Euro today and tomorrow buy another kilo potato for 10 Euro, then the production value has increased, while the nutritional value has not. Your body gets an equal number of kilocalories from a 1 Euro/kilo as from a 10 Euro/kilo of potatoes. In other words, the food strategy has succeeded without any increase in food sovereignty."

To illustrate what a nutrition-oriented food strategy could look like, she has modelled the nutritional value of the domestic food production of Arctic Sweden based on official statistics. The results reveal a local food supply rate of 937 kilocalories per person and day, which is less than half of the need of an average adult with a sedentary lifestyle.

But how accurate are these calculations really? Nilsson emphasizes that the margins of error may be huge.

-"My estimates are simplified and relies on other estimates, she explains. They rely on reported harvest data from 2015 and 2016. During the extraordinary dry summer of 2018, the local food production was likely much smaller, and there may be years presenting larger food production too."

Thus, Nilsson prefers to highlight the model rather than the figures.  The aim of her calculations is to demonstrate the need of an in-depth discussion on food safety, where decision-makers focus on the traditional biological value

of our food, i.e.  the energy content and nutrient value. She also means that Sami food producers are not sufficiently considered in the target goals of the Swedish National food strategy, and provides an example.

-"In the county of Norrbotten there exists ten times as many reindeers as cows. This makes reindeer herding an important business from a food sovereignty perspective. Further, reindeer meat is a nutritious food item with a higher content of many important vitamins and minerals compared to industrial beef and pork."

The anthology, entitled Food Security in the High North; Contemporary Challenges Across the Circumpolar Region” and published by Routledge in London, is the result of a three-year Nordic research cooperation funded by Nordregio, and a total number of 38 international researchers have been participating as authors.

For more information, contact

Lena Maria Nilsson
Project manager, project coordinator, other position