We eat a lot of imported vegetables in Nordic Europe. Which one is worse–eating imported vegetables or having locally grown meat?

Relative to other nations, carbon neutrality is low hanging fruit for Finland and only requires a 50 per cent carbon emission reduction. In doing so, reducing meat consumption, especially beef, is imperative for Finland just like any nation. Finnish education, known for its excellence and efficiency, has become its national export. In near future the knowledge of Finland in reducing beef consumption, along with others of carbon neutrality, can also be another national export in a world shared by 7 billion people and more.

Agriculture in Finland at a glance

Food security of Finland among other Nordic European nations has been heavily dependant upon dairy as its climate and soils make growing crops particularly challenging. The country lies between 60° and 70° north latitude, and has severe winters and relatively short growing seasons. However, Finland contains half of the world’s arable land north of 60° north latitude. Annual precipitation is usually sufficient, but it occurs almost exclusively during the winter months, making summer droughts a constant threat.

Climatic summers of the southern Finland last 4 months. In northern Finland, particularly in Lapland, a subarctic climate dominates, characterized by cold — occasionally severe – winters and relatively warm, short summers. Winters in north Finland are nearly 7 months long, and snow covers the lands almost 6 months. Summers in the north are quite short, only 2 to 3 months.

In response to the climate, farmers have relied on quick-ripening and frost-resistant varieties of crops, and they have cultivated south-facing slopes as well as richer bottom lands to ensure production even in years with summer frosts. Most farmland had originally been either forest or swamp, and the soil had usually required treatment with lime and years of cultivation to neutralize excess acid and to develop fertility. Irrigation was generally not necessary, but drain- age systems were often needed to remove excess water.

Meat consumption in Finland

Finland consumed 71.26 kg of meat per capita in 2007 1 that is less than the other European nations such as Spain (111.79 kg), France (88.77 kg),1 but almost double of what the dietary experts recommends — 60 to 100 g per day — worldwide.

Finland Meat, and Dairy kg / capita / year compared to other regions. Source: FAO Statistics

Perhaps surprisingly jauheliha (ground beef) constitutes the majority of Finnish beef consumption, which has become progressively affordable owing to the shortened breeding cycle as well as the Finn- ish dairy consumption that is higher than almost any other nation. The shortened breeding cycle has taken place for various reasons: increased input costs; enhanced milk productivity due to breeding system and altered feed composition; fixated market price. Many misunder- stand that the beef consumption has been decreasing and beef in Finland comes from only certain area, but any dairy farm in Finland is also beef farm as all the dairy cattle are being used as minced meat.

Minced meat is popular also because of its versatility and convenience — to cook laatikko (oven casserole), meatball, burger, et cetera — naturally become the most common menu in restaurants and canteens. Popularity of laatikko, which usually required a large quantity of cream or cheese to cook, has to do with high gender equity of Finnish society where working mom has been a long tradition, as well as the food culture in which warm dish is considered proper meal. There are about ten or more variety of laatikko, and the biggest advantage of it is preparation time, and Finnish parents want to prepare the meal themselves even if it’s simply putting ready-cut meat and vegetables in a oven ware.

Breeding Cycle and More Greenhouse Gas

Today cattle in Finland are largely fed on imported soy and grain that enhance milk produc- tivity but exhaust the animal, and therefore to be slaughtered only after two or three calving periods. Over the past decades, the average breeding cycle has become shorter from 10-15 years to 4-5 years. The average dairy farm size has dramatically increased while the number of farms decreased while many of the cattle farms have been moving to the south as it makes more economical sense to be closer to the shore for imported soy and crop.

Shortened breeding system has a greater contribution to climate change due to the increased overlaps. It takes about two years for a calf to be mature to produce milk. Soy and grain based feed also means more greenhouse gas emission and altered fatty acid composition that proves to be less healthy than traditional composition. Even in the old days Butter was softer in the summer than in the winter because cattle were fed mostly on grass in the summer and more on other feed in the winter. Only about 5% of whole dairy production keeps the traditional grass feed. Today farmers try to alter the enhance fatty acid composition by providing the animal with rapeseed press cake while keeping soy and crop based feed.

Comparison of overlaps between Breeding Cycles of 5 years and of 10 years in 20 years time frame. The darker areas represents the two years the newly born calves become mature to produce milk.

Meat from young dairy cattle also means lower quality beef, which is why we eat them as minced meat while importing beef from South America. According to Aki Arjola, a cofounder of a leading organic grocery chain in Helsinki, the beef from older dairy cattle produces much tastier steak parts than that of a young beef cattle.

Unhealthy Nation, Soaring Costs

Finns are not very healthy — approximately half of men and 40% of women are overweight in Finland. 2 We have a large number of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, which have been parallel with increasing consumption of meat. Taken together, the health- care costs are being more and more burdensome. The prevalence of overweight is higher in the older age groups than in the younger groups. The prevalence of overweight differs also by educational level, especially among women: lower educated women are more often over- weight compared to their higher educated counterparts.2

There are estimated to be about 150,000 people with diabetes in Finland, about 23,000 of whom have type I diabetes (an incidence of almost 40 per 100,000 population). Type I diabetes, which usually emerges in childhood or adolescence, is more common in Finland than in any other country in the world. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes is also fairly high compared to other western countries. It has been estimated that the prevalence of diabetes in adulthood has grown ten-fold and the number of persons suffering from the disease has grown over twenty-fold in the last fifty years. 3

Recently, the increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes has been notified as a major current public health problem in Finland. As a result the National Programme for the Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes 2003 — 2010 (DEHKO) was set up. The programme was coordinated by the Finnish Diabetes Association and a wide variety of other relevant organizations are participating. The programme comprises three concurrent strategies: the Population Strategy aimed at promoting the health of the entire population by means of nutritional interventions and increased physical activity so that the risk factors for type 2 diabetes, such as obesity and metabolic syndrome, are reduced in all age groups; High-Risk Strategy comprises measures targeted at individuals at particularly high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, providing a sys- tematic model for the screening, education and monitoring of people at risk; the Strategy of Early Diagnosis and Management is directed at persons with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes with the aim of bringing these people into the sphere of systematic treatment, thus preventing the development of diabetic complications that reduce the affected person’s quality of life and are expensive to manage. 4

The estimated direct costs of both types of diabetes is € 3.3 billion with additional costs of some € 1.8 billion, which are staggering figures considering that the Finnish state budget is approximately € 55 billion. Moreover, these costs come mostly from type 2 diabetes that costs about € 530 per patient per year in a non-complicated disease. Additional complications brings this cost up to € 10,700 per year per diabetic patient. 5


Metabolism refers to the chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life. Bovine animals, for example, can eat and survive grass while we mankind can- not. Difference of metabolism in same species also shows geographical implications. Small intestine of Asians, for example, is known to be longer than that of the others that makes boiled vegetables easier for Asians for digestion.

It was discussed with experts whether the Finnish population among Nordic Europeans can consume more meat and dairy without getting related diseases such as cardiovascular, type 2 diabetes or osteoporosis. Disappointingly there was no such thing but lactose tolerance and the Finnish genes that are known to be vulnerable to osteoporosis.

Dairy farming has been an integral part of Finnish agriculture since prehistoric times and milk has been the major agricultural product of Finland, which is well manifested by lactose tolerance found in majority of its Finnish population. Perhaps surprisingly, lactose toler- ance is an “abnormal” condition. Worldwide children under 10 years old are usually lactose tolerance and gradually become intolerant becoming adults. 6 It was a useful genetic mutation for people in Nordic Europe where the climate and solis make growing crops particularly challenging, which took place between 5,000 to 12,000 years ago. Most Africans and Asians are lactose intolerant while more than 80% of Europeans are lac- tose tolerance.

According to the The Finnish Dairy Council, Finnish nutrition recommendations favor dairy products but not the fat in them. It is advised to have half a liter of liquid dairy products, skimmed or low-fat, and 2-3 slices of low-fat cheese daily to meet our nutrient needs. Skimmed milk or low-fat fermented milk are recom- mended drinks with meals. All schools in Finland have been serving a warm meal free of charge daily, regu- lated by law for 60 years already, and the meals include free milk, fermented milk and water as a drink in every school. 7

According to FAO’s Statistical Service, Finland in 2007 consumed 361.19 kg excluding butter, more milk per capita than any other nation on this planet, and it has never gone below 300 kg since 1960 while Iceland, once-biggest consumer back in 60’s, has come down to 223.68 kg. 8

Systems map of Finnish beef consumption [View larger map]

Dietary Recommendation

The National Nutrition Council of Finland (VRN) has already since 1954 monitored the nutrition and health of Finnish people and issued nutritional recommendations aimed at im- proving their status. Initially the Council focused on eliminating nutritional deficiencies, but in the recent decades the major challenge has changed into reducing health problems caused rather by the overabundant consumption of food or unhealthy food. 9

The Finnish nutrition recommendation is based on the Nordic Nutrition Recommendation (NNR) made by the Nordic Food Policy Cooperation that consists of experts from the member countries and autonomous territories of The Nordic Council. The Council has 87 elected members from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as well as from the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland. The current Finnish nutrition recommendations have been renewed in 2005. They are based on the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations which were approved in 2004 by the Nordic Council of Ministers, and we are expecting the fifth edition by the end of this year or the beginning of 2013 as NNR is published every eight years. It’s in a very extensive review process by a large number of experts, and some parts of work in progress of today is being shared on the website. We will be able to see some of the contents at the 10th Nordic Nutrition Conference hosted in Reykjavik, June 3-5, 2012.

Raija Kara, the only full-time employ of VRN, works with roughly 20 members from various field. The National Nutrition Council is an expert body under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The Council members represent authorities dealing with nutrition matters, consumer, advisory and health promotion organizations as well as organizations from the fields of industry, commerce and agriculture, and they are elected for a period of three years. The term of office of the current Council is from 4 October 2011 to 3 October 2014. The tasks of the National Nutrition Council are defined in the relevant Appointment Decision, which occurs roughly every quarter.

From Nutrition to food

While NNR’s recommendation is mostly based on nutrition — e.g. vitamins and minerals — VRN translate the information to food-based recommendations according to the Finnish food culture, availability, and the current situation. The nutrition recommendation is somewhat standard all over the world, but what is available and what people enjoy are hugely different in different countries. For example, people in Korea do not consume as much dairy as the Finnish people but consume much more rice. So, if one looks at the food pyramid in different countries, they look all different although contain mostly the same food groups.

The food plate model by VRN 10

VRN created a plate model that exemplifies typical meals in Finland for home settings and canteen settings, so that people can easily see that how much vegetable, crops, meat or fish, and drink they need to take. The general principle is to fill one half of the plate with vegetables, one quarter with potatoes/ rice/ pasta and one quarter with meat/ fish/ eggs/ legumes and complete the meal wit low fat milk, whole-grain bread with vegetable oil-based spread and fruits/ berries.


About 0.5 to 3 percent of the adult population in Finland appears to vegetarian depending on the definition. 11 There are several vegetarianism and all of them can be perfectly healthy choices. Veganism, although some vitamins shall be substituted, for example by taking pills, also is a perfectly health dietary choice. When turning vegetarian or vegan one needs to be well informed about which nutritions he or she will be missing by not taking certain or all animal products anymore to substitute them sufficiently.

North Karelia Project 12

There have been several major public health campaigns in Finland to reduce mortality and risk factors related to chronic disease. For example, in 1972, the North Karelia Project was launched in the eastern province of North Karelia in response to a local petition to reduce the high coronary artery disease mortality rates among men. 13 The North Karelia Project was launched as a community-based, and later as a national, programme to influence diet and other lifestyle factors that are crucial in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. The original project period lasted from 1972 to 1977, but it continued operating beyond this period until the end of the 90’s. The prevalence of cardiovascular diseases among men in the eastern parts of Finland was higher than in other parts of the country and was one of the highest in the world. In cooperation with local and national authorities and experts, as well as with WHO, the project was designed and implemented to carry out comprehensive interventions through community organizations in the area, and the actions of people themselves. The project was integrated as far as possible into the local service system and social networks.

Various methods were used in the project: provision of general information and health education (through materials, mass media, meetings, campaigns, etc.); Development of referral and screening procedures in health services; encouragement of environmental changes (such as smoking restrictions, promoting vegetable growing, collaborating with food manufacturers); preventive work directed at children and young people; and training and education of health personnel. Much of the practical work was carried out by various bodies in the community itself, coordinated by hospitals and health centres.

Over the 25-year period since the start of the project, major changes have taken place. Among men in North Karelia, smoking has greatly reduced and dietary habits have mark- edly changed. In 1972, a little more than half of middle-aged men in North Karelia smoked. In 1997 the percentage had fallen to less than a third. By 1995 the annual mortality rate of coronary heart disease among men under 65 years old was reduced by about 73% from the pre-programme years. 14 Among women, the reduction in deaths from cardiovascular diseases has been of similar magnitude. Broad community organization and the strong participation of people were the key elements of the success of the programme.

Heart Symbol by Finnish Heart Association

With one glance, the Heart Symbol shows you that the product is a better choice in its product line, based on the content of fat and salt, as well as on the quality of fat. However, it does not guarantee that the product is healthy in every way, that you can eat it as much as you want or that it is necessarily a beneficial health product. On the other hand, products that haven’t been granted a Heart Symbol are not necessarily less healthy choices.

Even though a single ingredient obviously does not make one’s diet substantially more or less healthy, individual choices do ultimately make a difference, since any diet is composed of many choices after one another. The Heart Symbol helps consumers choose products that promote a healthier diet, at least in regards to the content of fat and salt. A balanced and rich diet includes daily a lot of vegetables, berries and fruits, enough whole-grain products, moderate amounts of skimmed or low-fat dairy products, fish or low-fat meat and moderate vegetable fat such as oils and margarines. 15

Herttoniemi food co-operative

A novel idea is being run by the Herttoniemi Organic Food Collective, which also operated a pop up village store selling local and organic goods in Herttoniemi in September 2012. The food collective was established on the back of the Herttoniemi Food Circle, which started in 2010. Having started as a group of like-minded friends, the food circle has gained around 300 members in just under a year. Members make food orders by email and can pick up their produce once a week. Organic products are ordered directly from producers without middle men or food wastage. The Herttoniemi Organic Food Collective consists of around 200 members who grow root vegetables, greens and herbs on a rented field in Korso, Vantaa. The collective employs a gardener, but most of the work is done voluntarily by the members. 16


  1. Meat Consumption (Total, kg/capita/yr), FAOSTAT: on-line Statistical Service of Statistics Division of FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, retrieved 19 May 2011, link.
  2. Overweight and obesity, National Institute for Health and Welfare THL, retrieved 29 March 2012, link.
  3. J Järvelin (Ed.), A Rico & T Cetani, Health Care Systems in Transition, The European Observatory on Health
    Care Systems, Vol. 4. No. 1, 2002, p. 10.
  4. Finland (2008), World Health Organization WHO, retrieved 29 March 2012, link.
  5. E Vartiainen, Sydän- ja verisuonisairauksien ja diabeteksen asiantuntijaryhmän raportti 2008, Kansantervey- slaitos, Terveyden edistämisen ja kroonisten tautien ehkäisyn osasto, Helsinki, 2008, pp. 15-16.
  6. CJ Ingram, CA Mulcare & Y Itan, Lactose digestion and the evolutionary genetics of lactase persistence, Hum Genet,124(6), pp. 579 — 591, Springer.
  7. Milk in Finland, The Finnish Dairy Council, 20 March 2012, link.
  8. Milk Consumption Excluding Butter (Total, kg/capita/yr), FAOSTAT: on-line Statistical Service of Statistics Division of FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, retrieved 19 May 2011, link.
  9. The National Nutrition Council of Finland VRN, retrieved 7 March 2012, link.
  10. Ibid.
  11. M Vinnari, J Montonen, T Härkänen & S Männistö, Identifying vegetarians and their food consumption according to self-identification and operationalized definition in Finland, Public Health Nutrition: 12(4), 481-488, doi:10.1017/ S1368980008002486, Cambridge Journal, 2008.
  12. World Health Organization WHO, loc. cit.
  13. P Puska, E Vartiainen, T Laatikainen, P Jousilahti & M Paavola (Ed.), The North Karelia Project: From North Karelia to National Action, National Institute for Health and Welfare THL, Helsinki, 2009.
  14. P Puska, P Pietinen, U Uusitalo, Influencing public nutrition for non-communicable disease prevention: from community intervention to national programme — experiences from Finland, Public Health Nutrition, 2002, 5(1a):245 — 251.
  15. Suomen Sydänliitto ry, retrived 29 March 2012, link.
  16. World Design Capital Helsinki 2012, Local food for helsinki locals!, retrieved 29 March 2012, link.
  1. Eetu Virtanen / Thursday, April 10, 2014 Finnish dairy cattle feed based on imported soy, really? What is the source of this information? Reply