Food & Water featured

40 years of organic agriculture

September 6, 2023

The past weekend, I was in the county of Värmland to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of Samodlarna. It was the first marketing cooperative for organic products in Sweden and most likely in the whole of Europe. We were two handfuls of vegetable farmers of which several had supplied a group of consumers in Karlstad. Now we wanted to expand and make organic products available to normal consumers in normal supermarkets. Our small farm commune, Torfolk, took a leading role in this. My then wife, Kari Örjavik (picture), took up the sales and marketing function and I did the combination of secretary and treasurer. To strengthen the credibility we formulated some simple rules for how we cultivated and managed to get an advisor from a semi-public service to check that our members followed those rules.

It was very successful and we got a lot of attention from other parts of the country. The year, after we invited organic farmers from the rest of the country for a meeting to discuss how we could further develop organic farming in Sweden. That meeting was followed by some more and in the end it led to the formation of an organic farmers association, Ekologiska Lantbrukarna, and a certification body, or a control body as we called it, KRAV. Both organisations still exist, even if the nature of KRAV has changed quite a lot since that time.

Because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut I ended up as a working chairperson of KRAV and when the organisation became a bit more consolidated, the executive director. Through that work I also came into contact with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (Now IFOAM-Organics International) and engaged myself in the development of the IFOAM accreditation program.  In the end I became a member of the IFOAM World Board and was its president 2000-2005. Parallel to this I still lived in the farm commune while working as a consultant all over the world. But that is another story, let’s go back to Sweden.

Organic really took off with a rapid development from the foundation of KRAV 1985. There were some ups and downs but generally the trend was positive. There was massive political support and organic was media’s darling for decades. A national target of 10% organic in the year 2000 was adopted unanimously by the Swedish Parliament 1994. This coincided with Swedish membership in the EU, through which Sweden got access to the development programs for organic farming. The successful development after the 10% target led to new national targets in 2000 and 2006. In twenty years from 1985 this grew from a few hundred producers with a few thousand hectares to 19,000 organic farmers with 510,000 hectares. With 19% of its farmland managed organically, Sweden almost achieved the next national goal of 20% organic farming in 2005. You can read more about this early development in the report Building Sustainable Organic Sectors written by Inger Källander and yours truly.

After that, development of organic acreage has been considerably slower and in 2022 there were 600,000 hectares organically managed and the number of organic farms is much lower than in 2005, both because of the general development of farming and that a considerable share of the smallest farms dropped out of certification (they might still farm organically).

The development in the market place was largely positive, but with some periods of stagnation. At this moment it is more than stagnation, however, and the organic market has shrunk since a peak in 2018. The reason for this is debated, but factors that have played a role are: the food and environment agenda has been totally dominated by climate and other aspects of farming such as pollution, harm of bio-diversity and even health has had the back seat. The backbone of organic farming in Sweden has been dairy and ruminants and they have (unfairly in my opinion) been demonised because of methane emission. This has been linked to the raise of veganism (which now also seems to have peaked). Supermarkets constantly seek new trends and products and organic is no longer new and sexy so they haven’t spent much on publicity for organic products. In the public debate, organic is no longer a media darling and has been under attack from various camps and the pesticide lobby in Sweden sued and won a case against the Coop supermarket chain over exaggerated claims of the dangers of pesticide use. Linked to this, the political support for organic farming has waned considerably. On the farmers’ side, many are a bit tired of the rigid rules of organic and young and many entrepreneurial people are more likely to go for regenerative farming, local, vegan, permaculture or any other concept which sound more interesting, new and less rigid.


When I engaged myself in the organic movement, I didn’t really believe it could change the world. Still, I felt it was a useful thing to further a farming system that didn’t use pesticides and artificial fertilizers and where there was a lot of innovation and learning going on. Every hectare that was organic was in a sense liberated.

Alas, even if the hectares were liberated, the farmers were not. The standards and certification system grew into a huge bureaucracy which became even worse when the EU started to regulate organic farming. Nowadays I can’t even use my own urine in my organic garden and organic farmers have a limited number of varieties they can grow as a result of organic seed regulation. Innovation? Forget about it, you can hardly do anything without breaking one or the other rule. When certification became a competitive business, fees became market oriented in a way that big farms pay much less per hectare than small farms. A small farm, like ours, pay 16 times more for certification then it did 30 years ago (around 8 times more in fixed currency value) while the premium price for organic has dropped. Of course, despite these shortcomings, certification is still essential for organic marketing under mainstream market conditions.

After the success of the organic vegetable marketing cooperative, organic farmers also took control of marketing of organic milk, grain and meat. In some cases, private firms such as Kung Markatta and Saltå Kvarn also played a big role. In the end however, selling organic products through the conventional food chains don’t change how markets work.  Quite early in the development we could see how competition worked in the organic business in the same way as in the conventional and small pioneer organic farms were squeezed out of the market in the same way as small conventional farms. Today, almost all organic cooperatives in Sweden have been taken over by mainstream cooperatives or simply ceased operation and most of the pioneer firms have also either quit or been bought up, Saltå Kvarn being an exception (a result of it being owned by an anthroposophical charity). The experience is not unique for Sweden. *

In the end, the liberation of the hectares was also partial. Economies of scale, linear production models and specialization also work on organic producers and especially on those that target large scale markets such as the supermarket chains or the food industry. This means that organic farmers are forced to mimic most of the conventional agriculture model even if they substitute chemicals with biological or physical measures.

Selected research on the topic of conventionalization of organic agriculture and the linkage with mainstream markets.

” Looking at the consequences of conventionalization in some sectors of OA in the Netherlands, we can conclude that they conflict with all IFOAM principles, in some way, especially with the Principles of Ecology and Health.”

”Although opposed by conventional agriculture, organics is now part of the mainstream, available in the majority of supermarkets. The success of organics is a great victory for the environmental movement and other critics of conventional agriculture. Sociologically, the success is problematic due to conventionalization, or the process whereby organics takes on many of the characteristics of mainstream agriculture regarding scale and structure.”

Our findings point out that there was a significant and positive correlation between the crop richness index and the share of farm sales through alternative food networks.

Currently there is a rise of direct marketing, farm shops, Reko rings (Food Assemblies, AMAP), CSAs and other direct marketing schemes. Many of the farmers using those distribution networks are not organic or are non-certified organic as there is little value in certification when you do direct marketing. Common for all are that they are trying to build more direct relationship to those who eat and through that build on relationships, engagement and loyalty rather than competition.  In Sweden we even talk about relationsmat – relationship food. Supplying schools and hospitals with organic food has developed a lot, both through large scale distributors and direct deliveries from farm to kitchen. In some cases, the school, or even a municipality, has become member of a CSA or started own production.

In the simplistic food debate, I often claim that the focus on particular foods as healthy or environmentally benign – or the opposite – is unfortunate as it is not what you eat but how it is produced that is important. This is still not enough. In the end it is even more important how it gets from the field to your mouth; how it is distributed, prepared, cooked and eaten.

A central strategy for a real change is to take food out of the competitive market.

‘The market’ doesn’t include the signals from the ecosystems, of the species threatened by extinction and the loss of biodiversity, of pollution and of greenhouse gas emissions. The market signals also don’t include the feelings of the animals ill-treated in our service. And it certainly takes no consideration of the situation of farmers who are stuck in the treadmill. On the contrary, modern day farming has removed much of the land husbandry and stewardship which was previously an integral part of a regenerative farming system. Some are promoting internalisation of costs or True cost accounting as a pathway, but that is not a good way ahead.  It is not realistic that ‘the market’ will take care of managing the planet. It is also not desirable, as the Earth is our common home and responsibility and should be managed as such. We need to think about food and farming in a new way:

“The rethinking of food as a right, of farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons will lead us to develop new institutions that complement the roles of the market and the state. This does not rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribution, but it rejects market hegemony over our food supplies, and the doctrine that market forces are the best way of allocating food-producing resources such as land, water, knowledge and seeds. We can still see in times of disaster, war or disturbance that societies rapidly shun the market as the main mechanism for distribution, and public or community control over food are the preferred ways of ensuring proper (that means somewhat equal) sharing.”

Since I wrote that in the article Food: from commodity to markets, 2015, I have become more sceptical of the perspective that we actually can or should “manage the planet”. While it sounds nice and smart, planetary stewardship still reflects a bit too much of human hubris as if we can manage the planet and as if we understand enough of its working to do it well even if we could. Nevertheless, I think you get the point: How we farm has a major impact on large tracts of nature and the decisions we make affects a huge number of other species than ourselves and our symbionts (the wheat, the cow etc.)  The market is really not the right institution to manage our interaction with the rest of the living, and why would it? It certainly didn’t develop as such an institution.

Of course, in the daily life one has to make ends meet and most farmers will be dependent on “the market”. Nevertheless it is important to take every opportunity to seek non-market exchange.  That counts both for inputs and outputs, i.e. it is equally important to limit what you buy in to the farm as what you sell.

Is it realistic? “Realistic” often seems to mean something that is easy to “sell” to the existing power groups or the public opinion. But it is this kind of realism that got the whole human civilization into a mess. I believe it is time to be both unreasonable and unrealistic.

How will it look like? As soon as you criticise something you are prompted to present alternatives. But I don’t think that is how things work. The current society is not the result of someone’s great plan: the transformation of society from feudal to capitalism was also not a result of a plan but a slow process that took hundred years in many cases, and despite the enormous “success” and penetration of capitalism it still hasn’t replaced all other ways of organise life. What the future holds for us is certainly not certain. As you embark on a journey, you don’t really need a goal, but you need a direction and the means to travel, even if it is just your feet.

I am a bit too old to take any new bold large scale initiatives to change the world, and I have also partly lost faith in large scale changes (it seems that societies only make large scale change that goes against the ruling paradigm as a result of external pressures or threats). On the farm I live on now, I moved from Torfolk 2008, we combine on-farm sale (all cattle meat and small quantities vegetables and fruit) and sales in a few Rekoring with sales to a small shop. We just waved off a crew from a local restaurant with which we will initiate some cooperation, certainly involving exchange of produce for money. We give away some food to a local charity. As it is considered tax evasion in Sweden I will not write that we barter goods and services, certainly not. We also have a very far reaching self-sufficiency in foods and firewood (and yes, we have to pay taxes on self-consumption). We don’t buy any feed or any fertilizers. We buy some 150 litres of soil for starting seeds (mostly to avoid weeds, our own clay soil is also not good for seed germination, so even if we made starter soil ourselves we would have to buy sand), but make our own soil for the plants and pots. Most seed we use are bought-in, but perennials as apples, asparagus and rhubarb make up a large proportion of the production. We are still certified organic, not because we really need it, but mostly because it is my tribe.



*I still think cooperatives is a great thing, but the capitalist paradigm and ideology have the upper hand. There is a lot of interaction between the cooperatives and the capitalist society, and because of the efficiency of the capitalist system, but also because of its aggressiveness, it is hard to resist the capitalist logic. The production cooperatives, for goods or services, compete with capitalism in the market and the same holds true for consumer cooperative shops. Originally, they were very different from capitalism, but the Scandinavian cooperative shops today are much the same as their competitors; they stock, perhaps, a bit more organic and fair trade products. New cooperatives are often more different, but gradually they adapt themselves to capitalism. They start, as an example, with equal pay for workers, which then makes the workplace very attractive for those who would normally have a low pay, and those who are talented managers are recruited by capitalist operations.

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, organic farming