Farming for a Sustainable Future

Anna Henning Moberg works at Torsåker Farm, where farmers, scientists, food producers, cooks and contractors meet to come up with solutions that transforms food production into becoming more sustainable. Photo: Carl Lemon.

Roughly half-an-hour drive north of Stockholm lies a special farm, Torsåker Farm. What makes it special is that besides being a farm it’s also a research and development centre aimed at transforming the whole chain in food production into becoming more sustainable.

Torsåker Farm is run by Axfoundation, an independent, non-profit organization whose objective is to establish venues and conditions for real change that propel us toward a sustainable society. At Torsåker, farmers, scientists, food producers, cooks and contractors meet in order to come up with creative solutions that speed up that process. Involved in the projects that are initiated at Torsåker is Anna Henning Moberg. We were given the opportunity to meet with her to discuss some of the things they are currently exploring. 

Early in our interview, it becomes clear that several of the ongoing projects at Torsåker relates to the fact that we’re so heavily dependent on soybeans in our food production. Sweden imports huge quantities each year – around 200,000 tons – of which roughly 90 percent is used only to feed animal in food production. 

“That’s a shame”, says Anna Henning Moberg, continuing “because it’s not sustainable to import so much of what’s considered perfectly fine food for us and instead feed it to what we later end up consuming. That goes without saying, so we base many of our projects on the idea that our food should not eat our food. That’s also why we’re looking at alternatives to soybeans.”

Sweet lupine – a Swedish answer to soybean?

One of the alternatives Anna Henning Moberg is referring to is sweet lupine, a legume that shares many of the benefits of the soybean. Like soybean, sweet lupine is full of nutrition and proteins, and needs less nitrogen fertilizers because of its ability to fixate nitrogen from the air. However, the sweet lupine outshines the soybean in one crucial aspect: it’s much better suited to the Swedish climate.

“Large-scale soybean farming in Sweden will probably never be efficient enough, so instead it gets imported. However, shipping those quantities of soybeans across the globe puts a heavy burden on the environment. That’s why we have such high hopes for the sweet lupine”.

Anna Henning Moberg’s optimism is underpinned by the fact that of one of Sweden’s more progressive grocery chains, Urban Deli, recently decided to replace the minced meat in their ready-to-eat lasagnas and bolognaises with a plant-based mince containing sweet lupines. 

Although the plant-based mince is a product developed at Torsåker, Anna Henning Moberg says that product development isn’t part of their core business. However, if we are to significantly reduce our meat consumption, we really need to find more good alternatives to meat in addition to soybean.

“We try to be creative in every way we can and to stimulate the industry to make a change. To do that, we have to rely on companies to show courage and test what we come up with, which is exactly what has happened with the plant-based mince.”

Bugs as part of the solution

Another alternative to soybeans explored by Torsåker is insects. Together with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU, they are looking at the possibility to scale up the use of insects as feed for fish. 

“Half of all fish we consume comes from fish farms. That in itself is not bad, but when you consider the fact that they’re usually fed fishmeal from wild caught fish, fish oil and soy, you realize the negative effect it can have on global fish stocks.”

To help ease the burden on our ocean resources, Torsåker has teamed up with a large vegetable wholesaler (Sorunda), grocery stores (Axfood) and a salmon farmer (Älvdalslax). With leftovers, such as peeling and bread from Sorunda and Axfood, they feed and breed insects that are in turn are used as feed in Älvdalslax’ salmon farms.

“Feeding insects in fish farms has only been legal for two years, but we’re already seeing some great results. We already work with a few companies, but now we’re looking at involving far more,” says Anna Henning Moberg.

Taking a deep dig into perennial crops

When asked which of Torsåker’s projects that could help the beverage industry become more sustainable, Anna Henning Moberg says their ongoing studies of perennial crops might be a game-changer. Most beverage companies use large quantities of various sorts of grain in the production. The Absolut Company is no different; they’re one of the largest purchasers of winter wheat in southern Sweden.

Today though, almost all grain crops are so-called annuals. This means that farmers each year need to buy new seed, plow and harrow the soil, sow new seeds and fertilize the ground – year after year. Annuals also have shallow roots, which makes it harder to capture carbon from the air. In a perennial crop, the roots are allowed to grow deeper, which makes carbon capture significantly easier. And since there’s no need for plowing the soil each year, the carbon also stays underground.

“The switch to perennial crops will take several years, but it’s easy to see the benefits. We’re looking both at what type of perennial crops are best suited for the Swedish conditions and what we need in terms of infrastructure to speed up the transition,” says Anna Henning Moberg.

Inspired by wine makers

Anna Henning Moberg’s interest in food and sustainability goes way back. Before she was asked to work at one of Sweden’s most innovative farms, she was a food and wine journalist.

“Back then, I often travelled to French vineyards. I think that some of my passion for sustainable food production actually comes from the French winegrowers. They know how to take care of the soil and they know how to value their terroir. The same goes for the whole beverage industry. Sustainability and quality go hand in hand, and everyone knows that the winery with the best grapes gets paid more. In the food industry, a lot is about volume, and not quality. If we could value food the same way as we value, say, a good wine, I think we would come a long way.”