Positive mood in Finland

Finland definitely is not a leading country in terms of organic market development. On the contrary, with just over 1% marketshare Finland is one of the least developed organic markets in Western Europe (but 7,2% of the field area is organic). Why is that? There is no one clear explanation but until now the Finnish consumer has had great confidence in food produced in Finland. We are almost food self-sufficient and we believe that Finnish food is safe and pure. We feel the problems are elsewhere – food scares did not happen in this country.

An other possible reason could be that Finland is a leading market for functional food – ie food with nationally accepted health claims. An opposite example is Denmark, which is the leading country for organic food and on the other hand has been extemily strict on health claims making it virtually impossible for Danish manufacturers or importers to focus on functional food. Maybe therefore the industry has focused on organics.

In Finland the mood may now be changing in favor of organic food. Why? I think there are two main reasons: one relates to how the Finnish consumer perceives the food system and the other relates to EU rules on health claims. Let’s take the first one first:

The image of Finland – we think – is that of a modern scandinavian, industrialized high – tech (remember Nokia) nation in the extreme north. However compared to other European and even Nordic nations Finland was predominately agrarian very late. In my generation ( I’m 50) almost everyone even in downtown Helsinki would have had relatives in the countryside and as youngsters we have been helping these relatives at least in their hay works. So Finnish urbanism was very thin. We were loyal to our relatives in the countryside and trusted them to produce the best possible food for us. Becoming critical requires distance.

In the 21st century – while driving our car on the highway somewhere in the Finnish countryside – we tend to believe that the idyllic farms from when we were young are still there somewhere. We just need to take a smaller road and we would find that world ( but we don’t have time – we are in a hurry). In reality of course that world doesn’t exist. The idyllic farming systems of the 70’s are gone.

The point is that the younger generation is more distanced from farming and the kind of farming where they could be involved doesn’t exist. Finnish farms are still relatively small (average 40 ha) but much bigger than before, the farming regions have been segregated ( grain, pork and chicken in the south – dairy in the east and north) bigger and more efficient (=industrialized) animal production units and in many cases disconnection between farming and animal production units. Even I believe that the situation is worse in other parts of Europe – not to mention the (big bad) USA – but the point is that the trend – or even the aim – is the same. During the last few years we have had activists take video tapes secretly on animal farms showing how animals are suffering which has raised the awareness of ordinary people. We are realising that the romantic 70’s is not how our food is produced.

– Last year the Swedish book “Genuine Food” by Mats-Eric Nilsson was translated to Finnish and it has created a huge discussion about food additives – as it had in Sweden earlier. Until now the Finnish food industry has used additives liberally and the consumer hasn’t been aware of a problem. Now the industry is trying to get rid of additives.

– “Eating animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer was also translated to Finnish raising awareness of the problems in the animal industry. The books description of the American animal and meat industry however is so unbelievable ugly that I think people are not prepared to believe that anything as cruel as that could be going on in Finland. Therefore the book is not having the same effect. Maybe that is the sentiment everywhere in Europe (please comment) but I believe it is safe to say that the industrialized food system in Europe has much of the same problems. The main difference is that in Finland or Europe in general the small-scale infrastructure has not been lost and producers who don’t want to be part of the industrialized system can still find an other way. For me the main news in Foer’s book was that as a farmer in the USA you have no alternatives (I always keep wondering where this ”free market” is – apparently not in America).

– Also books from Michael Pollan have been translated earlier.

So the first point is that the illusion of romantic idyllic farming has evaporated and consumers are getting more critical towards the food system and are turning more to organics, local food etc.

Point 2: I think the EFSA rulings on health claims is affecting the way of thinking in the big Finnish food companies. Even until now organics was the “poor man’s health claim” but now health claims are becoming too difficult, too expensive and too time-consuming even for the bigger companies (which in Finland by global comparison are of course only medium sized). Health claims will be even more than before only for big multinationals and therefore Pollan’s advice to avoid ”healthy” products is even more true than before. They are often manipulated and filled with artificial ingredients that replace the “unhealthy” natural ones. Going organic is an easier way to getting the attention of the health-consious consumer. Also the Finnish food industry has now heard the acronym LOHAS. The proportion of Finnish consumers who have a LOHAS profile is huge. They just need to be told what it means to them as consumers (as consumerism) – that they should go organic.

As I mentioned earlier Finland is one of the leading markets for functional food. The word functional has a positive connotation to it in Finland while in many other countries you wouldn’t be advised to use the word at all. There are several succesfull functional foods that have been debeloped by Finnish manufacturers – some have even found success abroad including Xylitol (invented in Finland), Benecol, Gefilus etc. Even some small companies like Bioferme have been succesfull in developng functional foods and getting official recocgnition on the national level for their health claims. Bioferme is the only company who has succesfully combined functional claims with organic products. Their products are based on fermented oats and include both spoonable yoghurt type products and smoothy type beverages. The Bioferme products are both probiotic and prebiotic and the functional effects are absolutely natural. The officially accepted health claim its positive gut functions.

So the second point is that developing functional foods with officially accepted health claims is not really an option anymore for small and medium sized companies because of strict rulings by EFSA. Organics is the way to go if you want to get the attention of the health conscious LOHAS cosnumer. And more and more people think that the kind of natural healthiness that organic products represent is true healthiness.

Founding meeting of Pro Luomu ry on 22nd April.

So what is happening? We are feeling a positive mood towards organics among mainstream players in the food chain. The organic market is growing and many manufacturers are facing lack of raw-material. Last week a new organization was founded to promote the development of the organic food system. Pro Luomu ry (Pro Organics) has as its aim to start a large scale development program for the organic market and is seeking for political support so that during the next government period (we have elections in April) there would be substantial permanent funding for the program. All political parties seem to have a positive attitude. Major players in the Finnish food chain – including the two big supermarket multiples S-Group and Kesko (together controlling 80% of Finnish food retail) and the Finnish farmers union (MTK) joined the Association – among others. After the parlamentary elections we will see if those hopes become true from the political side. In any case players from different parts of the organic value chain have come together and started communicating. We shouldn’t depend only on politics even though it can be a great help.

What should such an organization do? Can it really affect the market development? For Finland to catch up with the leading organic markets in Europe we need tiger leaps in the market development. We need to see years when the organic market grows by 30-50% annually. We have seen that earlier in countries like the UK, Denmark and Sweden. Were those leaps caused by promotion of organics with public funds? I think not. It helps but other factors are more important.

Over 200 people attended the

I think there are two important points that have to be met: we need to have the positive mood, a demand resulting from broader trends and social issues etc – and you need availability so that consumers can easily buy. I believe that now we have the mood in Finland and I think the retailers are the first to be aware of it. The easiest way to increase organic marketshare is to increase the range of products that are available in supermarkets. However we need to develop the whole organic business environment so that there is room for the tiger leap. Nobody seems to know how to make the organic tiger leap – but one thing is for sure: we should not stand in its way.