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The corona pandemic as the KSLA fellows see it ; A synthesis of responses from fellows of the Swedish Academy for Agriculture regarding the corona pandemic and its consequences

7.3. 2021

The corona pandemic affects society as a whole and, to a large extent, the areal industries. The crisis brings with it a large portion of increased uncertainty for the future. In the longer term, we will need to reconsider our preparedness for crises. The fellows of the Academy have reflected on the consequences of the pandemic, especially for the green industries and what experiences we will bring with us for the future.

In this very moment, we are in the middle of a second wave of spread of infection and the Swedish Public Health Agency emphasizes that we will have to live with restrictions for a longer period of time. Nor do we know what effects a future vaccine will have.

In the short term, the situation that has arisen has required rapid and urgent measures, such as meeting the need for labour to ensure sowing and harvesting.

In the longer term, we will need to reconsider our preparedness for crises. The areal industries are of crucial importance here. The degree of self-sufficiency, reduced vulnerability, improved infrastructure, flexibility, and innovative processes are aspects that must be taken into account when summing up experiences and conclusions from this crisis and form the basis for future policy.

KSLA’s main resource is its fellows. With their backgrounds in both science and practical areas, the fellows of the Academy together possess a unique overall picture of the green sector. In order to capture this knowledge of how society, but above all the green sector, is affected by the Corona Pandemic, the Academy’s Corona Reference Group, through the President of the Academy Jan Fryk, at the beginning of the summer asked three questions for all the fellows of the Academy all to reflect on:

  • What direct consequences do you see?
  • What consequences are likely in the long run?
  • What aspects do you think are particularly important to consider and should be taken into account for the future, so that we can be better prepared?

The responses received outline the situation for specific industries nationally and internationally, such as how bureaucracy and markets have worked together to maintain food chains. But the fellows also discuss what our knowledge looks like and to what extent it is sufficient to meet situations such as a pandemic, as well as the question of whether the knowledge that is available is always used in the best way.

Our need to make a holistic approach to the functions that affect us is a recurring opinion. The pandemic has forced forward a greater awareness that our current system is built on a whole load of addictive factors. It is, for example, about available labour and access to spare parts, but also about the fact that we may need to correct and revise the values and goals that govern our entirety.

KSLA is well suited to illuminate this entirety, through the broad and deep experiences of the fellows. There is also no lack of suggestions on how the overall experience that the Academy has should contribute. It is, for example, about developing a good reconnaissance function in stages like this, and the fellows are a good resource in this.

KSLA is also a good arena where all stakeholders, including authorities and politicians, can meet to analyse the shortcomings that have become apparent. The Academy can arrange seminars and workshops based on knowledge and experiences from previous events that have been described as threats and future-affecting changes. In addition, KSLA has a role to play in raising the status of the green industries, thereby reducing our dependence on, for example, foreign labour.

Several of the fellows also raise in connection with the pandemic the climate issue, which has been part of the Academy’s activities for a long time. The pandemic sheds light on the extent of the change that climate change management requires, while there at the same time is a risk that it may be overshadowed by the more direct social and economic consequences that follow in the pandemic’s footsteps.

Agriculture

For a short time at the beginning of the crisis, the prices of certain commodities fluctuated, but they stabilized fairly quickly. The problems of transport that remained standing in Europe were solved through the EU, as were the problems of labour traveling across borders. Several fellows of the Academy rather testify that agriculture at an overall level has done relatively well, in terms of the most acute effects of the Corona pandemic. There are even signs that the crisis, through discussions on self-sufficiency, preparedness and “holidays at home”, has made agriculture and its conditions visible in a way that is positive for the sector.

Erik Hartman points out that the biggest problem has been to produce organic protein, mainly soy, where China is an important supplier. Feed volumes compared to 2019 will fall slightly, but this is mainly due to the drought in 2018.

In other words, it is a combination of events that together make it clear that margins are often too scarce for many farmers. This applies to a large extent to milk producers, who are also pressured by the low milk price. Organic producers in particular are affected as feed concentrates prices skyrocket due to the shortage of organic protein raw materials in Europe. According to Margareta Emanuelson, this could lead to more milk producers being forced to close down their operations. It touches on an important aspect of our ability to be prepared, as Bo Dockered points out, that the small local producers are important. And the small-scale networks for food production are, if possible, even more important in poorer countries, as Segenet Kelemu points out.

Leisure and gardening

Small margins also characterize, as Marianne Eriksson notes, many smaller tourist companies in rural areas that are now at risk of being eliminated. At the same time, parts of Swedish tourism have done reasonably well when Swedes are tourists at home instead of going abroad. But there is reason to analyze in more detail the clusters of activities that support each other here, with tourism, small-scale production and experiences of various kinds when the streams of people on holiday are redirected.
In the horse industry, trotting and galloping have been possible (without an audience), Mats Denninger announces. It has benefited from those interested in gaming who could not play on football, for example, instead are playing on the trot. However, equestrian sports have been hit hard.

On the gardening side, production focused on home gardens has gone well, both in terms of useful and ornamental plants. On the other hand, garden producers focused on the restaurant industry have been hit very hard. Inger Olausson also notes that the search pressure regarding gardening education has increased, which she interprets as an increased interest in, among other things, self-sufficiency. The increased interest in horticultural issues is also noticeable in the fact that research colleagues have opened their eyes to the horticultural industry as a research object.

Horticulture in particular is highly dependent on the availability of foreign labour. However, the legal barriers that existed in this area at the beginning of the pandemic were torn down fairly quickly, although the problems remained. The need for labour in the green industries is raised by several fellows but is a complex issue. On the one hand, there is labour in the country, but not where it is needed (work in, for example, the horticultural industry is poorly paid, tiring, monotonous and seasonal). On the other hand, it is not a job that anyone can perform but, like most professions, requires knowledge and dexterity.

Fishing

With domestic fishing, the situation is partly different than with other areal industries. The fish that Swedes eat is primarily imported. Fish is also one of the most complete foods we have. The fish that is fished or produced in Sweden is mostly exported – the wild fish becomes feed for Norwegian salmon and the farmed fish ends up on Finnish plates, reports Anders Kiessling. From a preparedness point of view, it is unfortunate that we do not eat more of the fish that are actually close to us. Increased wild fishing means, however, that a large part of the fish, if it is to function as human food, must be purified from PCBs and dioxin. The alternative to wild fishing is farming.

Land-based fish farming in closed systems is vulnerable from a self-sufficiency perspective, while the farming in fish cages is more secure. Open fish farming can deliver fish for up to a year after a total shutdown to the outside world. According to Sture Hansson, Swedish coastal fishing could contribute to a safer food supply on a small scale and would reduce the need for long transports within the country. At the national level, however, it is the large-scale offshore fishing that can make a difference.

Forest

To be prepared for unforeseen events, it is important to learn from history. This is shown by the example of Södra Skogsägarna (Forest Owners), which Lena Ek tells us about. Not too far back in time occurred the storm Gudrun, which taught Södra’s members that the crisis can come when you least expect it. This extraordinary event has contributed to preparedness. It was important to quickly have a dialogue with contractors to get started with the annual planting. In the long run, the lack of manpower and skills will be a more important driving force than before for mechanization of, for example, forest management measures such as planting and clearing, Magnus Thor predicts.

In addition to staff, a functioning infrastructure in the form of forest roads and broadband is also required. There is still a lot to do here and that requires different forms of support, emphasizes Lena Ek.

Södra has three large pulp mills/biorefineries that take at least a week to close or start and they are sensitive to operational disruptions. A shutdown costs SEK 100 million per week. When the Corona pandemic struck, the staff groups were therefore divided into different teams that were not allowed to meet each other. A restraining order was introduced at all facilities and everyone who could work at home did so. Like so many others, Lena Ek points out the irony of our hoarding behavior in the beginning of the pandemic. The Swedish production of toilet paper is twice as large as the Swedish need, while the degree of self-sufficiency in food is only half as large as the need. The changes in demand on Södra’s part have mainly manifested themselves in reduced sales to the housing construction market, while sales to the DIY construction markets have increased.

In many ways, the challenges in the South Korean forest industry are similar to those in Sweden. Don K. Lee says that they also had difficulty with labour from other countries, but also about how meetings between researchers and the private sector were arranged to find ways to solve the problems that arose.

Several fellows point to the pandemic’s connection to how forestry is conducted in different parts of the world. Excessive careless managament leads to imbalances that can lead to wild animals losing their natural habitats, which increases the risk of zoonoses. The ecological effects will only be visible in the longer term. The rising poverty – the World Food Program predicts that the number of acutely hungry may rise from 130 million to 270 million as a result of Covid-19 – also affects the countryside. It has an impact on forest resources, emphasizes Klaus von Gadow.

Institutional framework

In addition to the fact that industries are affected by the Corona pandemic, the institutional environment in which they operate is also important. Lena Hellqvist Björnerot provides a detailed insight into how the Swedish Board of Agriculture has worked with the issue both nationally and in terms of collaborations with, for example, the EU. One example is difficulties in the transport area. This is partly due to the fact that the entire transport sector was affected by the reduced transport by air as a result of freight transport by passenger flights almost ceasing completely and the freight air prices then soaring. Attempts to redirect ship transport were hampered by containers getting stuck in China instead of being part of the global flow. Transport problems of this kind caused problems on several levels and created delays and uncertainty for the future of, for example, animal transport. In turn, this led to overcrowding for several actors in, among others, the bird industry in Europe.

The Swedish Board of Agriculture also monitored and followed several mink herds in the Netherlands that have been shown to have SARS-CoV-2. The Board informed the mink industry and Swedish veterinarians that the infection is best prevented by staff who work with the minks and show cold symptoms staying at home to avoid contact with the animals. In addition, normal hygiene routines must always be followed, such as hand washing with soap and water before and after contact with animals.

There is value in taking part in the experiences that many fellows have of working within authorities with bearing on issues of preparedness for unexpected events. Åke Bruce was working at the National Food Administration when radioactive waste from Chernobyl fell over parts of Sweden. He emphasizes the importance of the media contacts, but also notes how the practical planning during the Corona Pandemic has been substandard, especially at the local and regional level in terms of equipment, personnel and organization.

The changing institutional environment can be a valuable aspect in understanding and giving the present a deeper historical dimension. Leif Hambraeus was a member of the Emergency Preparedness Council at the Swedish Board of Agriculture in 1976–1991 and worked with adjustment studies of Swedish agricultural policy. He emphasizes that a basic idea was to guarantee a domestic production of Swedish basic foods so that they would be available to a sufficient extent and not be limited by rationing.

Historical experiences such as these are important to take advantage of in a situation such as the one we are now in. The preparedness in a number of different areas will most likely be reviewed when the pandemic has subsided. The majority of fellows also raise the question of whether the preparedness should not have been better.

But it is not just a matter of drawing conclusions from various historical experiences. There are also reasons to compare contemporary activities that are similar. Marianne Elvander points out that the veterinary work of stopping an infection is in many ways similar to the work carried out by the Swedish Public Health Agency. But the regulations are much sharper and more powerful for veterinary work than when it comes to the human side – a farm that is infected is quarantined. The concrete co-operation between authorities in different countries also seems to be more developed in terms of veterinary issues.

Another aspect regarding the link between human medicine and veterinary issues is that the competence that exists on the veterinary side has not been utilized, for example the knowledge that exists about modeling, but also the testing capacity. It must be improved in the future and fit within the One Health idea, i. e. the interdisciplinary approach where, among others, doctors, veterinarians, and ecologists work together to understand how different infectious agents arise and spread. Lack of cooperation leads to inadequate preparedness.

More holistic solutions that include humans, animals, and plants as well as their environmental context are required if we are to be able to handle the challenges we face, Segenet Kelemu also emphasizes. An interdisciplinary approach is needed to tackle several of the serious diseases that have plagued us: Ebola, bird flu, the Zika virus, H1N1 and most recently Covid-19. Segenet Kelemu also points out that in the light of lost biodiversity and climate change, not only more interdisciplinarity is needed but also better policies and popular commitment. She reminds of the importance of social sustainability in the SDG goals.

Thomas Rosswall addresses just this and talks about the work of the Steering Committee, High-level Panel of Experts (HLPE). They say in a statement to the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) that the UN must monitor the set goals for achieving food security when drafting policies to guide the international community in the light of Covid-19.

Climate and science

In their reflections, several fellows link aspects that have been made visible through the pandemic and our changing climate. It is about

  • how climate change in combination with, for example, a pandemic creates additional uncertainty for future preparedness, as in the case of the drought in 2018,
  • how politicians in the wake of the pandemic have shown a rarely seen capacity for action in closing down activities and  inancing the necessary support packages, and
  • how climate change can facilitate the spread of zoonoses.

The pandemic gives an idea of what it means to change a society. At the same time, as Jan-Erik Hällgren states, the shutdown that has been done is not even nearly enough to achieve the climate goals.

The corona pandemic and climate change are also taking place against different time horizons. The pandemic grew strong for a few months and has since held the world in its grip to varying degrees. Climate change is a slower process and it makes it more difficult to find common points of reference.

Both pandemics and climate change require resilient nature – and resilient societies. Kim Holmén emphasizes the importance of our societies succeeding in valuing love, friendship, family, culture, freedom and peace with a diversity of political views, religions and human types. He points to the danger that we see our society too one-sidedly in an economic perspective with ever-increasing growth as a goal. There is a similarity between how we talk about biological diversity and how Kim Holmén describes cultural diversity. Diversity makes us, like our nature, stronger.

John R. Porter also points out the problems with an overly narrow focus on economics, but emphasizes the theories and models we use, that they stand in the way of us being able to act preventively. The book on which much of the post-war economy (successfully) was based was John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory. The word environment is mentioned only once, and then in the context of “financial environment”. Globalization is as much a biological process as an economic process, as the pandemic clearly shows, and they are closely linked. In the end, though, biology (and physics) wins. We have learned from nature, through r/K selection, that an environment with long-term investments in biological capital (K-sample) is much more stable than an environment where the goal is to produce as many individuals as possible (r-sample). In the case of mammals, for example, humans and elephants are K-selected species and mice are examples of r-selected species.

Transferred to the pandemic, this means that the countries with spare capacity have managed the pandemic better than countries that are based on just enough resources for immediate production. Storing things for later use makes biological and economic sense. We have also learned that it is cheaper to be preventive than to find a cure for Covid-19 – and this will also apply to climate change. This means that it is cheaper to preserve and add existing carbon dioxide stocks (fossil and non-fossil) than to emit carbon dioxide and then try to capture it again. CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) sounds good but is an attempt to cure rather than prevent. Finance is too important to be left to economists alone. And economics is a purely human invention. John R. Porter emphasizes that people find joy in using their time for other things than working and that “enough from less” is more important than “more from less”. Increased efficiency per product unit can reduce the relative emissions per unit but does not reduce the absolute emissions if you just make more of them.

“Enough” is a more multifaceted state than “more”. Striving for more, to maximize a business, is also easier to model than “enough” or “just sufficiently”. Appropriate and sufficient is more situation-specific and dependent on our judgment. And it is with the help of our judgment that we must decide which path we should take when there is no clear message about which path to choose – for example, when science cannot give us any unambiguous guidance. This has been the case several times during the ongoing pandemic. Experts have many times given completely different advice on how the virus spreads, how contagious it is, how we best protect ourselves, how quickly we achieve immunity, etc. It is in many ways completely in order. We simply do not have knowledge that is exhaustive enough yet. We will get it, but do not have it yet. Then we need our judgment, i. e. a trained ability to weigh together different types of data and evidence around a question or a situation we have not experienced before. This is about what in the Academy’s portal section is called practical experience. The responses from the fellows of the Academy show that there is a great deal of practical experience from the entire web of activities needed for us to have sufficient readiness to face a pandemic. And that practical experience is not only active in what is to be regarded as “practical” areas but is at least as important in science and administration as in the actual agriculture.