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Finland's food supply heavily reliant on imports

Virtually all of Finland's domestic produce is reliant on imported goods, fuel and workers.

Ylämaankarja lepäilee aurinkoisella laitumella
Highland cattle take pause on a sunny pasture. Image: Riikka Pennanen / Yle

Modern food production is heavily reliant on the use of imports, which means that Finland's food self-sufficiency is not as high as many likely believe, according to agricultural experts.

While Finnish produce is often marked with white and blue flags denoting its home-grown status, the equipment and fuel needed to make the goods are rarely sourced domestically.

Marjo Marttinen, from the Pyyvin cattle farm in Southern Savo, said Finnish agriculture is quite reliant on imported goods.

"You can't really say with certainty how domestic [our] food is. Farms get animal feed from domestically-sourced seeds to grow plants that bind nitrogen and fertiliser on their own land. But the spare parts for farm equipment mostly come from abroad," Marttinen explained.

Modern commercial agriculture also requires the use of machinery which doesn't operate without imported fuel.

"We go through 5,000-6,000 litres of fuel per year. I think the second most-used imported product we use is hay bale plastic," she noted.

Story continues after photo.

Mies ja nainen poistavat muovia rehupaalin ympäriltä
Workers wrap a hay bale with protective plastic. Image: Riikka Pennanen / Yle

If a major crisis were to result in the total closure of the country's borders and put a stop to imports, Marttinen said the farm could operate normally for about a year. However, dairy production would come to a stop much more abruptly because it is heavily automated. Spare parts for milking machines, tractors and mowers could run out in short time.

Coronavirus hoarding raised questions

When the coronavirus epidemic began in Finland, shoppers emptied many supermarket shelves. In particular products like yeast, flour and canned goods were sometimes difficult to come by.

But as consumers hoarded products - or simply bought more than usual - food industry players reassured the nation that the country's food sufficiency level was at nearly 80 percent.

Marja Knuuttila, a specialist from the Natural Resources Institute (Luke) who investigated and calculated the country's food independence levels, agreed with Marttinen's assessment.

"It's true if you look at how much food is produced in Finland, compared to consumption," she explained. "Primary production is stable, but we do not have a single product that is grown without the use of imported [materials]."

Knuuttila said that she likes to encourage people to think about products in Finland that aren't reliant on imports.

"So far, the best suggestion was game meat. [But] then you'd need to chase and kill an elk and butcher it with your bare hands. The meat could be cooked by using a fire created with sticks or rocks," she wryly suggested, noting that the person hunting and preparing the elk would need to carry out the tasks without shoes or clothes, because even if made in Finland, they all contain imported materials.

Story continues after photo.

Rehupaali traktorin etukuormaajassa
Tractor moving harvested bale of hay. Image: Riikka Pennanen / Yle

Energy also imported

Finland's biggest import is energy. Fuels are processed domestically but the required crude oil is not available in the country.

Additionally, most of Finland's electricity - produced from nuclear power and fossil fuel - is imported. Knuuttila said she thinks the reliance on imported energy is a threat to Finland's food supply chain.

"In terms of vehicular fuels and the generation of electricity, it would be a good idea to think of better solutions. It's challenging and needs research and development," she said.

Organic, domestic alternatives

The managing director of the Finnish Organic Association, Susann Rännäri, suggested that farms could set up their own biogas production stations to become energy independent.

"If that was done, then tractors could still be fuelled and electricity would be available," she explained.

Even the soy used in livestock feed and the ammonia used in fertilisation are imported, according to Knuuttila, noting that one way to reduce reliance on imports could be through organic farming.

"The heart of organic farming is regular crop rotations and being as self-sufficient as possible with regard to fertilisers," Rännäri said.

While making the country's agricultural industry entirely self-sustaining would be difficult, there are domestic alternatives to importing fertiliser products, according to Knuuttila. She said that home-grown beans or peas could replace commonly-used animal feed soy which is imported.

There are alternatives, but cost is usually the biggest factor, she said.

"The borders are open, products are imported and exported and the market prices are global," Knuuttila explained.

Foreign labourers

Another consideration affecting Finland's food self-sufficiency is the agricultural sector's reliance on foreign workers.

For decades, most seasonal workers in Finnish agriculture have come from abroad. With coronavirus-related border restrictions limiting travel, there have been concerns about a possible labour shortage this summer. The government made efforts to amend the Aliens Act to ensure the season's harvests would not go to waste.

Special expert at agricultural advisory group ProArgia, Arto Karila, offered a possible solution to the situation.

"It is also a question of preparedness. The agricultural sector requires a lot of knowledge and many skills. Some food production is already reliant on a foreign workforce. The risks could be reduced if there were more entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector," Karila explained.

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