Interview | Tapani Parviainen

Tapani Parviainen has been working as a veterinary practitioner for three decades, and he now works for Aluehallintovirasto, the Regional State Administrative Agencies in Finland, covering Southern Finland. I just put almost whole conversation here as it went very spontaneously, and there are many interesting points not only about beef. Hope this will inspiring for you as it was to me.

Seungho Could you tell me about your responsibilities?
Tapani I am in charge of administration of the whole Southern Finland with other two. We are supposed to have six people but there are only three of us, one of which is in sick-leave. Anyway, I am mostly taking care of animal transportation, and animal experiments. There are many countries requiring veterinary certificates when importing animal products, and actually I have written out a certificate for fox leather for coat to South Korea. When it comes to animal experiments, there are about 60% of animal test labs in Southern Finland. I take care of mice, rats, fish, and a little bit of pig.
Seungho Fish? I almost never thought about them as part of a veterinarian.
Tapani Well, they are. For the toxins in the water, for example, as fish are more sensitive to those than mammals.

If you want to talk about meat from animal welfare point, I think the biggest problem is pig and hen houses, especially hen houses. They grow up in 37-40 days, their bones and legs cannot catch up. Also, animal protection organizations always seem to be against fur animal production farms where you raise fox, minx, et cetera, but I think pigs are in poorer condition as fur animals are being more taken care of for their fur quality. Pigs are usually in a small and dirty places.

Seungho That reminds me of some US documentary films like Earthlings or Food Inc. What about cows? Are they mostly freely out on the field?
Tapani No, because of the cold climate they are usually kept inside. There might be a hundred or so farms where cows are out all the time. Most of the farms keep them inside.

One thing I have to mention is that it doesn’t make sense to raise pigs in Southern Finland as pigs eat the same thing as we do. It makes sense to raise cattle In Northern Finland feeding on locally grown hay because we cannot grow corn or wheat there, but we can directly consume wheat, barley, oats grown in Southern Finland. What we are doing now is raising pigs on what we can consume directly and consume pork. For me it doesn’t make sense. The same thing with fish production. We have good quality herring but we raise rainbow trout on herring and consume rainbow trout. We loose a lot of energy in the process and create pollution. Two and a half kilograms of barley goes into one kilogram of pork, and in terms of the dry weight, only 6 to 7 per cent of barley is water, and 70 percent of pork is water. That is not so efficient.

Tapani’s hand and the map of Finland

The geographical implication was striking for me. Eating fruit and vegetables in Finland in winter has always been challenging, and I always knew it has a lot to do with the climate. But it was hard to imagine the seemingly obvious – geographical implications and what we cannot eat and what cows can eat – for someone like Tapani. This was a catch.

Seungho That seems to be highly relevant to my project. But I never thought about the geographical implications.
Tapani Yes. I think it makes sense for us Finns to consume dairy that are produced in Northern Finland where we cannot produce vegetables or crops that can be directly consumed by people anyway, also the meat as the by-product of the dairy cow. But producing pork in the South is not a very good idea.
Seungho Interesting. But, probably people would prefer meat from a cows that are grown solely for meat over by-product of dairy cow.
Tapani Yes and no. Most of the meat is consumed as meat products like meat balls or burger patty than as steak and so I don’t know how much difference it makes. Also, Finnish National Health Authority do not agree with the average meat consumption of Finns of today. It should be much lower anyway. Isn’t it very well-known that excessive meat consumption is never healthy–cancer, obesity, and so on.
Seungho Right. I’ll dig into that. What about antibiotics or growth hormones here in Finland? That seems to be unhealthy for people who consume meat products.
Tapani You saw it in a US documentary. Luckily in Europe, we have much strict regulations and those you mentioned are absolutely forbidden here. European Union (EU) drives that. In the US, they feed corn and that is the source of the problem, but in Finland cows eat mostly hay–both dried and vinegary–and a bit of barley.
Seungho What about estrous synchronization?
Tapani No. It’s forbidden in EU. We check blood, urine, and hair samples every year.
Seungho That’s a relief.
Tapani Yeah, for sure. Also, there used to be 16-20 cattle in a typical dairy farms, and 3-400 pigs in a average pig farms in the late 80’s. Today, the biggest dairy farms have 400 cattle, and the biggest pig farm has 10,000, although they are not many. Less than 50 of those as of today. So, the production scale is still quite small compared to that of the US.
Seungho You can easily find Brazilian beef in supermarket in Finland. Why do you think it is so?
Tapani Price. I think many people act differently as they say. If you talk to anyone on the street about production method, most people say they care, that they don’t want that kind of meat, but they react to a few cents in the supermarket.
Seungho I think that happens everywhere. Do you think eating animal is problem to global warming?
Tapani Absolutely. Cattle and dairy production are contributing to global warming. Now the world is worried about two centi grades worldwide, which may mean six degrees here. In Northern Europe and Siberia, there is a lot of moss, there are lots of swampy area, and if they begin to melt, there will be a lot of CO2 and methane emitted to the atmosphere, also the white areas that are used to be frozen will be darker in color, and we will be receiving more energy from the sun.
Seungho One of my friend, who is a Japanese cook in Finland, told me that it’s simple calculus why people prefer meat over vegetables in Finland. A kilogram of pork is as expensive as a kilogram of fresh vegetables.
Tapani No wonder. In the summer we can grow vegetables, but in the winter, it’s all oil and electricity that grows the vegetables. Fruits can be cheaper as they last longer than vegetables. But it’s hard calculus whether it’s better to import vegetables or grow them here when it comes to GHG emission.

This was my starting point of this project. Is it better to eat vegetables in Finland in the winter? Hard to say.

Seungho How did Finns survive the winters back in the old days when there was no electricity nor fossil fuel available?
Tapani We ate potatoes, root vegetables, and preserved berries for vitamin. But, between 1866 and 1868 there were very cold winters and About 15% of the entire population died. So it was not very long ago when we were starving.
Seungho That’s really not so long ago. Will we survive if we cut off the import?
Tapani Probably not. We either need to import or grow vegetables and fruit with fossil fuel. But, one thing is that 95% of wild mushroom that we ate before are now being rotten in the forest. Good quality protein, no pollution, but still being wasted. It’s the problem of high standard of living. Why would you go pick them when you can buy packages from supermarket? Well, people in eastern Finland pick and eat more mushrooms than those in western Finland. In western Finland they could more easily fish.
Seungho Do you know how long Finnish farmers keep milk cows?
Tapani Quite short, after three or four calvings. So, four or five years.
Seungho Is it because of the production efficiency?
Tapani Actually production goes up until 8-9 years old. After four or five years they need more constant care, and here the labour is expensive, so farmers keep them for quite short period. Also, the average milk production of a cow was 5,000 kg per year in the early 90’s but now it’s 9,500.
Seungho How is it possible? Sounds like growth hormone.
Tapani No. It’s the breeding system. We choose more productive ones for calving and it goes on and on. Just like some people gets fat with small amount food while the others are thin, the same as dairy cattle. Some produce much more with the same amount of food. It’s not only efficiency, but also how health. Generation after generation cattle become healthier because of the breeding system. So, it makes sense to keep them for as short period as possible. Not because of the cost of medication, but because of the care given by people. That’s what’s expensive.
Seungho What about the slaughtering time for cattle for meat production?
Tapani Not entirely sure, but somewhere between 1.5 and 2 years old. It’s also about efficiency. You have limited space and time, so you slaughter them at the most efficient time. Also, completely grown cattle can be hard to handle.
Seungho Has there been any major change in animal related production you’ve noticed, or anything that worries you?
Tapani I don’t know if that can be considered major change, but the fact that the number of big farms are increasing worries me. About 30 years ago, the market value of pork was more than double of what is now. Farming is usually family business in Finland, and a family made living with 300 pigs back then. Today, they need 10,000 pigs to make living as the price of meat has been going down and all the other costs has been going up. Cheaper meat means larger number of animals in one farm while the number of staff stays the same or even decrease, hence less care for each. Simply put, the cheaper the meat is, the more danger of animal epidemic there is.
Seungho Seems like unfair situation is going on.
Tapani I am not entirely sure what the reasons are, but one thing for sure is that there are only two big buyers–S Group and K Group.
Seungho No competition at all?
Tapani Yeah, and hence no choice for farmers. Of course it’s a little bit of exaggeration, but the competitors are way too small in size. I think every farmer is working hard hoping that this will stop, but I don’t know to what end. For pork production, for example, though I am entirely sure about the exact figure, about 60% of the farmer’s income comes from the state and the EU.
Seungho Are you saying that the state is subsidizing the farmers that grow animal? Does that mean all the tax payers are actually chipping in for meat production whether or not they eat them?
Tapani That’s right. And still the farmers are having problems in income, and so we may need to rethink the way we eat at large. There are differences between EU countries, but I think you can easily find them. By the way what are the reasons you’re doing this project?
Seungho It’s the population growth, and seemingly shifting eating culture all over the world toward more meaty diet, and global warming. It’s not only GHG issue, but also water, soil erosion, that will cause serious international crisis.
Tapani Yeah. I agree. And global warming is accelerating as the Northern Europe gets much radically warmer than the other part of the planet, which release CO2 and CH4 frozen in siberia to the atmosphere. Being two degree warmer is nothing, but we don’t know the real consequences after the two degrees.
Seungho My friends jokingly said that Finland will be a good place to live and farm.
Tapani That’s true. If it becomes warmer and melt the Spring frost earlier, Finland will be heaven for farming as it has a lot longer day light than, for example, Spain in the summer. As long as the cold night do not kill the tropical plants.
Seungho That’s true.
Tapani Anyway, I think mushrooms can be one of the potential meat substitute. I can find wild mushrooms in the wood even on a New Year’s day.
Seungho Thank you. Is there anything you want to tell me before I leave?
Tapani Yeah. I think there are at least three cuts in your topic. Animal welfare, environment, and human health. Having been working in an animal protection organization I do not think people will listen to you if you talk about animal right, maybe a little bit if you talk about environment, but they will be quite immediately responsive when you talk about health.

This interview taught me a lot of things: geographical implications, the seemingly monopolized market, subsidy on meat production, and so on. Also, whether or not the animal welfare into the discourse remains in question, which I will probably have to decide before new year. Nonetheless, it was a relief that Finnish meat production is much safer than that of the US. Now, it’s time to figure out the consumption, and maybe the stakeholder map slowly. Definitely visits to the farms. Getting busy.