It is often said that the Finnish food chain should not compete in the market of low-cost bulk food due to small production volumes and high costs. It would be more important to specialise in high-quality and high-priced products, as many background factors increase the quality and value of Finnish food. Key strengths are listed here at the Food facts (Ruokafakta) website.
Clean soil and water
The cleanliness of food products is affected by the purity of key production inputs, such as soil and water. The purity of arable land is based on the geochemical composition of soil and any substances added during the production process, such as manure, fertilizers and pesticides. Finland has the strictest regulations on the heavy metal content of fertilizers in Europe, and Finland has the lowest content of heavy metals released from sludge. The use of pesticides and herbicides per hectare is among the lowest in Europe.
The purity of water is a highly complex concept. Tap water is very clean in Finland but, in the light of EU statistics, differences between member states are very small. On the basis of results acquired from different measuring points in the Baltic Sea regarding the quality of swimming water, Finland is on an average European level along with other countries in Northern Europe. Unfortunately, the clean state of Finnish lakes and rivers cannot be distinguished from EU calculations. Instead, Finland has had the lowest nitrate content, an important key figure regarding groundwater that also has an impact on human health, on a European level.
In addition to the quality of water, the availability of water will be emphasised as a result of climate change. The scarcity of water is already a factor limiting agricultural production in many parts of the world. Finland and other Nordic countries have rich water resources in relation to the population. What is more, Finland is the first country with water accounting conducted at an accuracy of roughly 200 industrial fields. Understanding how we use water enables us to monitor its use and set separate goals for each field.
Clear signs of improvement can also be seen in the state of the Baltic Sea. Surveys of predatory fish in the Baltic Sea, conducted at intervals of a few years, indicate that, for example, the dioxin content in salmon has halved over the past 20 years, approaching the EU threshold value.
Achievements based on hard work
Finland’s location in the north and northern climate undoubtedly cause additional costs in agricultural production. However, the status of plant and animal diseases has partly been better than in Continental Europe as a result of our isolated location across the sea. This means that less pesticide and herbicide treatment is needed in plant production and medical costs are lower in animal production. Year after year, Finland has been among the countries with the lowest residues of pesticides and herbicides in food products. The use of antibiotics is the second lowest in Finland among EU member states, and Finland’s status in terms of concrete bacteria, such as salmonella, has been exceptionally good.
When explaining these achievements, hard and persistent work, self-control of food chain actors and productive cooperation between organisations and authorities are much more significant factors than Finland’s location and climate. In Finland, pesticides and herbicides or antibiotics are not used preventively, and safety periods and other guidelines and regulations are followed to the point. The current salmonella situation was preceded by research conducted over decades, as well as the active and independent commitment of companies and authorities.
Responsibility is indicated, for example, by the sustainability of fishing and fish farming. Phosphorus and nitrogen loads of fish farming decreased significantly after a switch was made to use powder produced from the Baltic herring in fish feeding.
Finland’s food production chain promotes One Health
The overall responsibility of the Finnish food production chain is in line with the One Health concept. One Health defines that the health of people is closely linked with the health of animals and the environment. Key parts of the concept include food safety, diseases transmitted to humans from animals (zoonosis), the use of antibiotics and resistance to them.
In Finland, the wellbeing and good health of production animals enable the minor use of antibiotics, which has an impact on the state of the environment and the health of people. The volume of medical substances released into soil through the manure of production animals is lower in Finland than in other countries. Cases of zoonosis are rare and, most importantly, bacteria remain sensitive to antibiotics. In other words, the situation involving antimicrobial resistance is exceptionally good compared to other countries. The low level of resistance is a precondition for the functionality of antibiotics used by people. As a result, the production methods used in the Finnish food chain promote One Health, the simultaneous health of people, animals and the environment.
Strengths offer a competitive edge in national and international markets
The Finnish food chain produces clean and safe high-quality food. What kind of a competitive edge does this offer in national and international markets? Even though Finnish consumers value Finnish food products, the loyalty of many is based on conventional or vague conceptions. Facts are needed to increase the appreciation of food so that consumers can select the domestic option based on facts and reason. Similarly, facts offer a competitive edge in international markets. In international markets, such as Asia, product safety and cleanliness are valuable properties. Experience shows that figures of many countries lower than those of Finland can result in high sales, as long as marketing and communication are in place.
When it comes to improving the value of food and exports, it is important that the good production methods, cleanliness and safety of Finnish food products are communicated extensively. We need facts of our strengths based on international statistics and research results, on top of which we can build a national brand and marketing activities. To top it all off, every company must independently narrate their detailed achievements and stories. Our strengths are concrete. What we need to do now is to sharpen our marketing and sales.
Photo at the upper edge: Csaba Jansik