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Why does Sweden’s love for vegetarianism create an appetite for objection?

A number of schools in Sweden have cut meat from their menus in recent years, sometimes provoking strong reactions, and companies have also experienced backlashes.

Why does Sweden’s love for vegetarianism create an appetite for objection?
File photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT

The cultural and historical position of meat as a staple of the national diet is a major reason for opposition to modern trends which promote vegetarianism, according to researcher Richard Tellström, an associate professor in food and meal science and an ethnologist at Stockholm University.

“Meat has always had a high status,” Tellström told TT.

When IT company Telavox recently announced it was dropping meat from its events and meetings, it came in for criticism from a number of customers, with some even saying they wanted to cancel contracts.

“This turned out to be a sensitive topic, perhaps more sensitive than I envisaged,” the company’s HR manager Filip Johansson said.

The decision by Telavox was not an attack on the meat industry, but an attempt to raise the issue of the effect of meat consumption on the climate, he said.

“It’s actually quite a soft action, but some people consider it an affront. They react to what they see as pointed fingers and forced changes. But we have also had positive reactions, so you have to weight things up,” the HR manager added.

Some municipalities in Sweden have trialled removing meat from school dining rooms on some days of the week. At a school on Orust, teachers protested that vegetarian lunches resulted in tired children who could not concentrate on lessons, GT/Expressen reported earlier in the year.

In other areas, parents have resisted vegetarian lunches in schools. In Mörbylånga, a mother called for “honest home cooking” in response to a vegetarian day at her son’s school, and reported the school’s headmaster to the local municipality, saying her child had been left hungry by the food that was served, local media Barometern reported in April.

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“If I deprive you of the right to practise your culture, you will naturally feel offended. And food is as culturally loaded as clothes, books, art and music,” Tellström said.

Historically, meat has been in short supply, and this is part of the reason it has a valued status in Sweden, the associate professor said.

Swedes are so secular and rational in their values that they easily forget food is an expression of those values, Tellström also noted, saying this is a reason why banning or excluding meat can provoke strong reactions.

At the same time, there is a growing trend towards opting not to eat meat, particularly amongst young people in urban areas.

“This is an urban phenomenon, and more and more people live in cities. We can also see a clear distinction between the food cultures of younger and older people, and also between men and women, in a way we haven’t seen before,” the researcher said.

“I think we should be careful about limiting people’s cultural expressions and speaking on their behalf about how to create a better world,” he added.

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SAMI

How Sweden’s Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change

The indigenous Sami people have herded reindeer in northern Sweden for generations, but climate change poses a new threat to their way of life and livelihood.

How Sweden's Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change
Reindeer pictured near the northern city of Kiruna. Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Once, the lynx, wolverines and eagles that preyed on their animals were the main concern for reindeer herders as they moved them to find food in the winter. But now Margret Fjellstrom and Daniel Viklund, a married couple from Sweden's indigenous Sami community with hundreds of tawny reindeer, worry about a new threat.

Shifting weather patterns in northern Sweden are forcing them to go further afield to find grazing for their hungry reindeer, pushing up costs and taking more time.

Dressed warmly in jackets and ski pants against the minus 17-degree-Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) temperatures, the couple watched on a February morning as their animals pawed through deep snow for the lichen they eat. It's their main food source in winter on the hillsides near Sweden's Baltic Sea coast.

Back when snowfall like this was a regular occurrence, Fjellstrom's herder parents would follow the same migration routes year in, year out, stopping at tried-and-tested spots for food. But that isn't the case now.

“It can rain in January, it can snow in May, there's no logic to it any more,” Fjellstrom, 39, said, sitting with Viklund by their snowmobiles.


Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Between 1991 and 2019, parts of northern and eastern Sweden saw a rise in average temperature of nearly two degrees C compared to the 1860-1900 period, Sweden's meteorological institute said in a report. For several days in early January, temperatures in the north climbed about 10C more than normal, the institute said. And on January 2nd, three weather stations in central Sweden reported their highest temperatures for the month since 1971.

Unseasonably high temperatures cause the snow to thaw and freeze again when the cold returns, building up thicker layers of ice that prevent the reindeer from digging down through the snow to the lichen.

To ensure they will find food during the migration, the couple spends two months taking turns to scout out unfamiliar areas, before setting off with the animals. Moving the reindeer from their summer pasture now often involves navigating them around motorways, windfarms or hydroelectric projects. The journey this year took nearly twice as long as it would have done in predictable weather, Fjellstrom said.

The Sami have herded reindeer across areas of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia for generations and are thought to number between 80,000 and 100,000, with many living above the Arctic Circle. In Sweden, only the Sami are allowed to herd the animals, raised for their meat, pelts and antlers.

Fjellstrom and Viklund annually move their herd from Dikanas, a village 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of Stockholm, to the plains near Ornskoldsvik. They transport them first by lorry, then release them and follow by snowmobile, tracking them using GPS collars.

Viklund watched as the reindeer disappeared into the snow-dusted forest, before launching a drone with a speaker attached into the freezing air above. It allows him to keep track of the animals when poor snowfall makes travel by snowmobile impossible. He can also herd them on with recordings of his dog barking when they head to areas with little food or hazards like roads or windfarms whose turbine noise scares the reindeer.

“We're getting more and more days that don't look like this, the snow is just a few centimetres,” he said. “It's a way to adapt.”


Reindeer herding on the Vindelälven river. Photo: Grahame Soden

Concerned that the animals get enough to eat, the couple split their herd and asked Fjellstrom's cousin to move the other half. It's an added expense for 31-year-old Neila Fjellstrom but he understands the need.

The Sami peoples and their reindeer are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to research. 

A “warming climate alters the vegetation conditions and threatens the reindeer's wellbeing and access to food,” Finland's University of Oulu and its Center for Environmental and Respiratory Health Research said in a study last year.

Many Sami are more worried about fluctuating temperatures now, than encroaching infrastructure, said Gunhild Rosqvist, a Stockholm University researcher into the effects of climate change in mountain and polar environments.

“I think their awareness of their vulnerability has increased a lot,” she told AFP.

At the annual Sami market in Jokkmokk above the Arctic Circle in early February, thousands of Sami mixed with tourists, just weeks before the new coronavirus forced countries around the world to introduce lockdowns. Reindeer products were proudly on display, from steaming pots of reindeer stew to soft pelts and knives with handles carved from antlers.

“Reindeer herding has been practised for many hundreds of years and it's an important part of Sami culture,” Kjell-Ake Aronsson, a researcher at the local museum, said. “Reindeer meat is an important product. A lot of people are related indirectly to reindeer herding.”

Sweden's Sami parliament estimates around 2,000 people are directly dependent on herding the country's 250,000 animals for a living. Away from the crowds, young Sami activists, in traditional outfits embroidered in blues and reds, gathered for a “climate strike” attended by Greta Thunberg.

Fjellstrom and Viklund's 17-year-old daughter Alva also spoke at the event and hopes to become a herder herself. But the increased effort needed for herding reindeer now makes Viklund worry about the future.

“I want to give my children the opportunity to do it,” he said, the sun casting long, blue shadows across the snow. “Climate change could destroy that dream.”

By Tom Little/AFP

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