The arctic climate causes many challenges for food production, but Finland has been able to turn these difficulties into a competitive advantage. Could arcticity be the flagship of Finnish food export?
Two decades ago, Finland faced a rough patch as to cultivation. The production prices and thus the profitability of crop cultivation collapsed when Finland joined the European Union in 1994. There was a desperate need for alternative perennial plants that Finland could export and profit from.
Little did anyone suspect that the solution to the problem could be caraway, a spice plant successful in Central Europe and North America. Nevertheless, it proved to do extremely well in arctic conditions. Actually, the history of caraway in Finland goes way back.
“Caraway has existed as a natural crop in Finland for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. The Finnish perennial breed needs cold winters in order to flower the following year.
Caraway has really adapted to our climate,” says Senior Scientist Marjo Keskitalo, Luke.
Working together with Finnish caraway export companies since many years, Luke is the leading Finnish institute in the research of the crop. In this spice plant, Finland has found the market niche it hoped for: almost one third of all caraway consumed in the world is of Finnish origin.
Long winters can be a savior for crops
The success stories of Finnish arctic delicacies don’t stop there. The health benefits of oat, for example, have become so widely known around the world that Finnish oat mills struggle to keep up with the demand. In addition, Finnish forests are abundant with nutrient-rich forest berries, most of which end up for export.
But how do caraway, oat and forest berries survive in the arctic conditions? Most of Finland is north of the 60th parallel which makes it an arctic country. This implies long dark winters and short, chilly summers, which one might think aren’t the easiest starting points for cultivation. In fact, within the same parallel you can actually run into permafrost. Luckily, Finland is blessed with the Gulf Stream that makes the climate more temperate.
Luke’s researcher Jaana Kotro is working for a project that studies arcticity as the leading edge of food production. The project aims to improve the competitive edge and export of Finnish food. Kotro points out that arctic conditions actually give cultivation many advantages. Long snowy winters can save crops.
“The cold cleanses the production environment by killing pests. Snow protects the crops from frost in the winter and from strong radiation from the sun in the spring. This is crucial for the crops to survive in the harsh conditions.”
The growing season of the arctic area is short but full of light. Both natural and cultivated plants grow the faster the more there’s light. And there’s plenty of daylight: during the summer solstice up to 19 hours a day in Helsinki and the whole day up north in Rovaniemi.
Clean food comes from clean natural resources
Finland is known for its thousands of lakes, and the water resources are excellent both in quality and quantity. According to the Water Poverty Index created by the World Water Council and UK’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology, Finland is the world’s richest country when it comes to water.
“We have unlimited clean water reserves, which is critical for product safety and quality. In Finland, we can assure that the water we use in the food production process is pure,” Jaana Kotro says.
Water is not the only pure thing the Finnish nature has to offer. The cleanest air in Europe is measured in Finland, and chemical or nutrient accruals in soil are minimal, thanks to short cultivation seasons and the cold temperatures that eliminate pests.
According to Luke’s Research Professor Sirpa Kurppa, sustainability is a driving force in the Finnish arctic food production.
“The amount of green infrastructure in Finland is 85 percent, which means that almost the entire surface area is in its natural state. We have to be able to secure food supply for future generations and preserve the specificity the arctic gives to Finnish food. We cultivate during only one third or fourth of the year, use very few chemicals and respect the principles of the circular economy. ”
Key to success
The success of arctic food production comes down to the processes. Know-how and research are the key.
“The Finnish integrity applies also for food production. The traceability of the production chain is extremely good because of systematic documentation in every phase. That’s how product safety and reliability are achieved, which in turn adds value to the products,” Jaana Kotro says.
Traceability is also one of the things that make Finnish caraway production unique in the world. The export companies keep the batches from different cultivators apart so that quality features can be registered and samples taken from each batch separately.
Kotro thinks this know-how should be exported around the world.
“The knowledge we have regarding cultivation, animal husbandry and food production is unparalleled. A good example is the fact that salmonella is practically nonexistent in our food production. We have carefully planned operational models that everyone involved is committed to follow.”
Arcticity gives Finnish food a significant competitive advantage that needs to be communicated to the world better and louder than before. Caraway, among others, could be one of the flagships of Finnish arctic food.
Chairman of the Arctic Council
Starting from May 1, 2017, Finland is the chairman of the Arctic Council for the next two years.
The key themes of the two year period include mitigating and adapting to the climate change and promoting sustainability.
Furthermore, the goal is to strengthen the cooperation and maintain the stability in the Arctic area.
The chairmanship is coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs together with other ministries and stakeholders.
The members of the Council include Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Island, Russia, Canada, and the United States.