What will Norwegians eat if the planes, ships and lorries stop coming?
Norway is not sufficiently prepared for major food crises, according to the auditor general. What will the Norwegian diet look like during a long-term stop in imports?
“Norwegian authorities are not well enough prepared if there is a crisis in food supplies from abroad,” Norwegian Auditor General Karl Eirik Schjøtt-Pedersen said when he presented a report on food security and preparedness in agriculture in late October.
Norway is currently 40 per cent self-sufficient in food. This means that the country can only feed 40 per cent of its population from the food produced in Norway.
The government has set a target of 50 per cent self-sufficiency.
Government officials are working on this. The Ministries of Agriculture and Food, and Trade, Industry and Fisheries are among those laying plans, strengthening preparedness, and monitoring the food situation in Norway and the world.
The tools and measures they have at hand are primarily meant to address short-term risk situations, according to Schjøtt-Pedersen.
But what if the crisis lasts a long time? Or if several crises occur at the same time?
If the food stops coming
The plans aren’t good enough if several unfortunate events with major consequences occur at the same time, according to the auditor general.
"It is therefore uncertain whether current preparedness related to food security will be sufficient to handle these kinds of situations," the report states.
So what happens if the ships, lorries and planes with food from all over the world stop coming?
“It depends on how suddenly this situation arises,” Lars Johan Rustad says.
He is a senior adviser who works with agricultural economic analysis at Nibio, the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research.
“It’s also a question of whether the import crisis will last for months or years,” he says.
There will quickly be a shortage of wheat flour for porridge, bread, and cakes. Today, around half of Norway’s wheat comes from abroad.
And Norwegians can no longer get grain from emergency warehouses.
Non-existent and vulnerable food stocks
When neutral Norway could not buy grain during World War I, there was a risk of famine. When the war ended in 1918, the government began to build up emergency grain stores. These grain warehouses operated until 2003. At that time, they were shut down, and the silos were converted into housing and other purposes.
Now the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament, has decided to build up its grain storage warehouses again. This, however, will take time.
But there are other warehouses.
The food industry has several large warehouses around Norway. So if the crisis does not last too long, Norwegians will lose access to fresh produce from abroad, but will be able to eat dried, frozen, canned, and salted imported food.
But a fire in Vestby, south of Oslo, a few years ago shows how vulnerable these central warehouses can be.
“Asko's cold storage burned down. It supplied large parts of Eastern Norway with food. They had to drive from a warehouse in Ålesund with desserts for hotels,” Rustad says.
That’s roughly 550 km, or about a 7-hour drive.
Coffee, tea and fruit disappear
If the import crisis lasts for months, stocks will run out. Norway would then no longer have access to chocolate, cocoa, coffee, tea, wine, spices, rice, corn, and sugar.
“We can produce salt in Norway, but not pepper,” Rustad says.
In addition, many foods will be made with fewer ingredients.
“For example, there are all kinds of grains and seeds in the breads we buy, and much of it is imported. In a crisis, there will be less garnish and a smaller selection of types of bread," Rustad says.
According to gartnerhallen.no (link in Norwegian), only six per cent of the fruit and berries that are eaten today in Norway are produced in the country. Gartnerhallen is the country’s largest supplier of Norwegian fruit, berries, vegetables, and potatoes.
If imports stop, Norwegians will have to wave goodbye to all types of fruit that cannot be grown in the country, such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, pineapples, grapes, melons, peaches, apricots, mangoes, and kiwis.
Norwegians have also become accustomed to eating imported apples, pears and blueberries at all times of the year. Today, 97 per cent of the pears and 80 per cent of the apples eaten in Norway come from abroad. They will also disappear.
Half of the vegetables come from abroad
Norway also imports half of the vegetables that are eaten in the country.
Today, all avocados and almost all peppers, broccoli, asparagus, garlic, mushrooms, and aubergines are purchased from other countries.
30 to 50 per cent of the tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and leeks consumed in Norway are grown in the country. The rest is imported, according to gartnerhallen.no.
Carrots, onions, cabbage, turnips, celery, and potatoes, on the other hand, are mainly grown in the country.
Norway today is different from the Norway that struggled with food supplies during the two world wars.
Today, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers can be produced in heated greenhouses all year round.
"That assumes that electricity prices are low so that the greenhouses can afford to keep it warm enough in the winter," Rustad says.
Moreover, agriculture is more efficient now than in the past.
“Productivity has increased, and farmers get more yield per hectare. Meat production, with animals such as fast-growing pigs, is also more efficient,” he says.
Every year, Norwegians buy close to one million tonnes of soy from South America, which is used for animal feed. 80 per cent goes to farmed fish, the rest to livestock.
If the soy stops coming, farmers will have to find new sources of protein for their animals.
“In the long term, we can switch to protein sources that can be grown in this country. There is already a conversion underway to produce field beans for feed,” Rustad says.
Topsoil for food
Auditor General Schjøtt-Pedersen has criticised the authorities for not managing the country’s topsoil well enough. Today, topsoil is reallocated to other purposes, such as roads and housing. Moreover, there are many fields that are not cultivated and pastures that are not in use. The municipalities haven’t followed up sufficiently on their obligation to see that this land is farmed, which ensures that all agricultural land is used for food production.
The authorities do not know enough about how to adjust food production if international trade in food fails, according to the auditor general.
In March, researchers at Ruralis and Nibio, released a report (link in Norwegian) that addresses exactly this issue.
If necessary, Norway has the opportunity to become completely self-sufficient in food, these researchers believe.
More green, fewer animals
This will require a major restructuring of agriculture, however.
Today, 90 per cent of agricultural land is used to grow animal feed, according to the Norwegian Information Office for Bread and Grain (link in Norwegian).
If Norwegians have to make do with what is grown in the country, all land will have to be used for growing human food. Farmers will have to grow grains, potatoes, rapeseed, legumes, root vegetables, fruit, and berries, according to the Ruralis/Nibio report.
Meat and dairy production will have to decrease because people —not livestock — must eat the food made from the grains, legumes and rapeseed.
This means that there will be no room for chicken, pig, and fish farming. These animals consume too much grain and rapeseed.
But people can eat hens when they are too old to provide eggs.
Nevertheless, there will be a lot of fish for dinner.
Green diet with fish
A stop in imports would presumably also mean a stop in exports. It will take a long time before Norwegians can eat all the fish in the country’s aquaculture pens. Afterwards, freshwater and marine fish will often end up on the dinner table.
The researchers at Ruralis and Nibio have calculated that a diet with lots of grains, potatoes, root vegetables, fish, and some milk and meat will provide all residents with enough energy, protein, and fat.
They concluded that 15 per cent of the country’s calories can come from meat, but not from animals that mainly live on feed.
Today, 37 per cent of the calories Norwegians eat come from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products, according to AgriAnalyse (link in Norwegian).
In a situation where Norwegians have to fend for themselves, their diet will include a lot of grains and potatoes.
For consumers who like a large selection, especially of meat products, this will be bad news. In that case, their diet will resemble what Norwegians ate a few generations ago, according to the researchers at Ruralis and Nibio.
Their calculations assume maximum yields each year.
More food for some?
Other things can happen during a crisis.
People will want to procure their own food by fishing, growing vegetables in their own garden, and picking berries in the forest. That’s exactly what happened when there was a food shortage during World War II.
However, this may not be the same for everyone.
“If Norway experiences a sudden food crisis, hoarding will be a danger. Food can be unevenly distributed among the population,” Rustad says.
Food prices may rise. This may mean that some people will get enough to eat, while others have to make do with less.
Food preparedness has come on the agenda after the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
“The authorities are now working on crisis plans and contingency planning. But there is still academic and political disagreement in this field,” Rustad says.
And researchers don’t agree on what is most important for preparedness.
“We often think differently based on what we study. Some think more about the practical conditions related to storage and production, while others think about how the markets will respond and what happens to supply and demand in a crisis,” he says.
Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk