Relevance of the Concept of Food Sovereignty in Denmark

Frie Bonder (Via Campesina Denmark) publication 

Does the concept of food sovereignty make sense in a wealthy country like Denmark? As it does in countries of the Global South? That question was debated at a conference on food sovereignty in the parliament building in  Copenhagen on May 3. Genevieve Savigny spoke on behalf of the European Coordination Via Campesina, and Ole Faergeman (Frie Bonder – Via Campesina Denmark) argued how the concept is useful in any meaningful discussion of policies for farming, fishing and food, even in a country like Denmark. The core meaning of food sovereignty is democratic control of production of healthy and adequate food from small scale farming and fishing that do not violate natural ecosystems more than necessary. The term was coined by La Via Campesina more than 20 years ago. 

Even in a wealthy country, three conditions must be met if it is to consider itself food sovereign. First, the physical basis for food production must be intact. Second, the physical basis must be either a commons or properly owned.  And third, policies for food production must derive from democratic process.  Denmark falls short on all three counts. 

Farm land, the physical basis for food production 

The most important threats to soil quality in Denmark are compaction, erosion, loss of organic matter and contamination with heavy metals. 

Wide tires on tractors and other machinery reduce compaction of the upper layers of soil, but they do not protect the layers deeper than 40 centimeters. At that depth, what matters is axle weight, and industrial farm machinery continues to get stronger and heavier. To make things worse, deep soil compaction is virtually irreversible. 

As tiny passages in soil are clogged by clay particles loosened by compaction, moreover, compaction causes erosion by destroying the ability of soil to channel water, even in a flat country like Denmark. On cultivated soils, the median annual rate of erosion by water is 0.7 tons of soil per hectare.  That rate is considered moderate loss of topsoil, but it is not necessarily reversible, since the upper limit of reversibility is somewhere between 0.3 and 1.4 tons hectare-1year-1.  As farmers remove hedgerows to accommodate ever larger machinery, erosion by wind will also, and again, become a problem, as it was in Denmark in the 18th century. 

Average Danish farm land has lost soil organic matter as farmers practice less crop rotation, practice more drainage and tillage, and harvest straw for biofuels rather than soil improvement.  Consequences include lower yields and greater use of fuels to till harder soils. They also include lower rates of transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil, thus reducing the contributions farming could make to mitigating climate change. 

Farmers add copper to pig feed to hasten growth. They also add zinc to prevent diarrhoea in piglets that are weaned from their mothers before the gut is adequately developed. Then farmers use the feces and urine (slurry) to fertilize selected soils, in which concentrations of copper and especially zinc now kill essential microorganisms. Degradation of farm soils is not as bad in Denmark as it is in some other parts of Europe, but it is bad enough and getting worse. 

Ownership of farm land 

Land for hunting, grazing and farming was once a commons. Now it is a commodity, and smallscale farmers have sold and are selling land to large-scale farmers and domestic as well as international financial investors. It is remarkable that irrevocable sale of parts of the Denmark to foreign investors fails to interest a public and a right wing political class purporting deep concern about lesser threats to national identity.  A reason could be that the question of land ownership is duller and more complicated.  At the very least it involves technology, economics, demographics, politics, and agrarian philosophy. The reader will be relieved to know that we are not competent to discuss any of them in depth. 

The number of farms in Denmark has dropped to about 35,000 from about 200,000 in mid 20th century, and policy makers anticipate a further drop to about 1,000 within the next few decades. Average farm size would then be 2,600 hectares, and farm number would be similar to that in the 18th century. Back then, farm land belonged to 700 great estates owned by an even smaller number of aristocratic families. 

Industrial farm interests portray the current massive consolidation of land ownership (”strukturudvikling” or ”structural development”) as inevitable for a number of reasons including the techological treadmill. The mill works like this: a progressive farmer, Anders, buys a better machine. His yields increase, more grain is brought to market, and prices fall. His less progressive neighbor, Bent, goes bankrupt, and Bent sells his land to Anders. Less grain is marketed, prices go up again, and Anders, with more farm land, buys a still better machine for yet another round in the treadmill. 

An equally important reason for consolidation, however, is the political power resulting from the wealth that creates still more wealth. Although small farmers still far outnumber big farmers, the latter call the shots in Danish Agriculture and Food Council (Landbrug & Fødevarer), which is the major agricultural interest group in the country. The council has a long history of close relationships to the government’s ministry of agriculture. Karen Hækkerup, for example, became its current director less than a year after she had been minister of agriculture. 

Since the turn of the century, a succession of governments has gradually relaxed the laws regulating ownership of farm land, and national and international organisations such as pension funds and hedge funds can now own farm land in Denmark. Although the country is known for its sophisticated registries, the ministry claims it has no knowledge of the extent of foreign ownership. Land prices have been relatively high, however, so investor interest has probably been limited, but prices have fallen by a quarter since 2010, and Savills, the British property company, now advises investors to buy farm land in Denmark. 

Business and right centrist political parties have considered foreign investment necessary to reduce a colossal cumulative farm debt amounting to about 350 billion DK or about 47 billion Euros. Reasons for the debt include disastrously poor advice to farmers from banks and consultants from special interest groups.  Almost half of the debt, however, is due to loss of capital from farming as farms are bought and sold. 

The mechanism is easy to understand: let’s think of Anders who bought his farm when land prices were low. Having reached retirement age, he happens to sell when prices are high. They are high, however, not because he has improved the land. They are high because of subsidisation and deregulation of the requirements for investment in land. When he sells, he takes his money out of farming (loss of capital), and Bent, his successor, incurs debt to buy the farm. 

The proper way out of that problem is for banks to shoulder part of the debt and for the state to establish a land trust that can buy a bankrupt farm, manage it for an interim period and then sell it to a farmer who has proved his / her ability to run it. A state land trust does not have a responsibility to shareholders to make a profit, in contrast to the pension funds and other investors that now buy farms with the explicit purpose making money on rising land prices, i.e. exactly the mechanism responsible for almost half of the Danish farm debt in the first place. 

Policies for Danish farming promote the transfer of ownership of farm land from small farmers to domestic and foreign industrial farm interests. 

Democratic process 

Denmark is a parliamentary democracy, and parliament (”Folketinget”) must be correctly and adequately informed if it is to legislate wisely. Three cases illustrate how Folketinget has been deliberately misinformed on matters that are crucial for informed agricultural policy. 

The Farm Package (”Landbrugspakken”) 

In early 2016, the minority government of Lars Løkke Rasmussen, with the support of the right wing parties, passed a law to increase the international competitiveness of Danish agriculture. Farmers were now allowed to till the buffer zones between cultivated land and streams. The zones had reduced the amounts of pesticides, nitrogen and phosphorus reaching streams, fjords and the seas surrounding the country. That protection is now gone. 

More importantly, farmers were allowed to increase the application of nitrogen fertilizers to soils. The relevant data had been provided by university departments, but the prime minister pressured the minister of agriculture to pressure civil servants of the ministry to redact the data acccording to suggestions provided by Bæredygtigt Landbrug, a particularly aggressive organisation of industrial scale farmers (”Bæredygtigt Landbrug” means ”Sustainable Agriculture”, an egregious  misappropriation of the sustainability concept). As a result, Folketinget was unable to understand the environmental consequences of the proposal before it was passed into law. When that story surfaced in the press, Lars Løkke Rasmussen fired his minister of agriculture, Eva Kjer Hansen, but he did not step down. A year later, he is still prime minister. 

Antibiotics in agriculture 

Half of Danish pork sold in supermarkets is infected with methicillin-resistant- staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a pathogen for humans. By the Fall of 2016 it was apparent that Per Henriksen, Chief Veterinary Officer of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, routinely had sought to prevent Folketinget from understanding recommendations from the Danish Technical University about ways to reduce the problem in hog farms. His position was that more research is needed. It is notable, therefore, that Alexander Fleming in his 1945 Nobel lecture clearly explained the mechanisms of bacterial resistance resulting from sublethal dosing of antibiotics, and we know that solving the current problem requires at least 90% reduction of dosages, but not doses, of antibiotics in human and especially veterinary medicine. Per Henriksen remains Chief Veterinary Officer. 

Erosion of soil on inclines 

In 2011 the European Court of Auditors found that Denmark failed to comply with EU standards for protecting soils from erosion. After thinking about this problem for a year, the responsible government agency (now called the Danish Agrifish Agency) solicited the advice of the University of Aarhus. 

Replying quickly, the University advised that extreme care should be taken in tilling inclines greater than 12%. The agency welcomed the recommendation but changed percentage to degrees, i.e. care to be taken on inclines greater than 12 degrees. When notified that 12 degrees = 21%, the agency said it was too much trouble to fix that technical error in the official publications that define what farmers may and may not do. At the same time, it decided that inclines less than a half hectare were not worth the bother. By these stratagems, the agency managed to limit inclines requiring special care to 236 hectares of Denmark’s total cultivated area of 2.6 million hectares. 

The agency had caved in to political pressure from special interest groups such as the Agriculture and Food Council, and the Danish government has done nothing to protect farm soils from erosion. 

In all three cases (and there are others), industrial farming interests and allied politicians, including the current government of Denmark, required that civil servants redact information provided by the universities so that Folketinget would be unable to understand the ramifications of the laws it passed. 

To summarize: 

Food sovereignty means control of the food system by farmers, distributors and consumers rather than by corporate interests. The idea was developed two decades ago by La Via Campesina for countries of the Global South, but it is relevant also in affluent countries such as Denmark. At least three conditions must be met, however, if Danish farmers, distributors and consumers are to consider themselves food sovereign. First, the physical basis of food production must be intact, i.e. farm soil quality must high and well protected. Second, there must be proper ownership of the physical basis. And, third, there must be democratic control of production of food, i.e. policies for farming, etc. must emerge from proper political process. As we have seen in this document, none of these three conditions are adequately met in Denmark. 

What can be done?  

In the Danish version of this report we list a range of possible solutions. They include provisions for  regenerative agriculture, for land reform and a government land trust, and for political reform. In this English version, we limit ourselves to a few brief comments on an issue of immediate concern throughout Europe, namely the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union. 

We argue that within the current 2014 – 2020 period of the CAP, Denmark should transfer 15% of money in Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 to promote ecologically and socially responsible agriculture. Of greater importance, Denmark should fully exploit the current option to redistribute up to 30% of the national allocation in Pillar 1 to farmers on their first 30 hectares or the average farm size (63 hectares in Denmark). 

After 2020, Pillar 1 of the CAP should be gradually phased out, and the money should be transferred to Pillar 2 to promote ecologically and socially responsible agriculture based on multifunctional, small-scale farming. None of the money should be used to support agriculture as an export industry. 

For the complete text (in Danish) and bibliography please click here