Success for nation that rejected modern farming

By Imre Karacs in Ange, Sweden

12 March 2001

Astrid Lindgren may be the finest Swedish children's story-teller, but down on the farm her name is muck. Swedish farmers still speak contemptuously of "Astrid Lindgren's Law", allegedly a gift from the government for her 80th birthday, though some are willing to concede she was on the right track.

The creator of the Pippi Longstocking books forced Sweden more than a decade ago to abandon the farming methods that have brought hellfire to the fields of Europe. Thanks to her, Anders Olsson, a 43-year-old stocky man who tills 325 fertile acres in southern Sweden, is raking it in.

While farmers across Europe watch their livestock being consumed by flames, Mr Olsson's pigs and cattle are untouched and guaranteed to fetch record prices as soon as the EU reopens its abattoirs.

The Lindgren Law banished the excesses of modern farming and offered Europe an environmentally friendly model for food production at affordable prices.

Bowing to pressure from animal rights activists marshalled by the writer, Sweden introduced Europe's most stringent animal welfare rules in the mid-Eighties. Mr Olsson cursed, remortgaged the family farm to comply with the requirements, and, today, consumers cannot get enough of his pork and beef.

Mr Olsson shows a concrete field the size of a football pitch that ensures nothing leaches into the soil from his silage. That alone cost 250,000 Swedish kronor (17,500). In one shed, 44 dairy cows eat hay cut from his own field. In the rest of Europe, he says, up to 70 animals might be crammed into this space. His livestock have never seen bone meal, and never will. The ban on feeding cows with the carcasses of other beasts was one of the cornerstones of the Lindgren Law, adopted long before the BSE outbreak in Britain. Sweden has not had a single case of "mad cow" disease.

The 80 pigs in the sty must have straw to lie on and their curly tails cannot be cut. In other European countries, pigs deprived of straw chew off each other's tails so farmers tend to amputate them at birth.

Sweden bans the use of antibiotics and other growthinducing chemicals. Swedish sows must be allowed to move freely. The government even determines how much of the sty's floor can be covered with manure. Salmonellais almost unheard of in Sweden.

Mr Olsson admits: "I was angry when the new law came in. But with hindsight I can see it was a very good decision."

And the new methods make economic sense. The Swedes have witnessed soaring profits. Mats Denninger, of the Swedish Farmers' Federation, says that "sick animals produce less, and are bad for business". He added: "If you maintain good animal welfare, you get good, healthy, animals."

And in the epoch of food scares, consumers are prepared to pay extra for a slab of meat they know is safe.

Anna Tofften of the Swedish Agriculture Ministry, says: "We have intensive farming, but not the kind of animal factories you see elsewhere in Europe." Organic food costs up to 50 per cent more than the standard fare you find in supermarkets. But Swedish meat is only 10 to 15 per cent more, a premium consumers are willing to pay.

Mr Olssen has now made up his mind. "We are the winners," he says. And his three children are happy with the way things have turned out – for the first time, they are allowed to read Pippi's adventures.