Are consumers ready to pay more for meat that is produced in a way that is sustainable also for the waterways?

"Hopefully, meat producers will see the business opportunity awaiting here."

The eutrophication problems of the Baltic Sea center around phosphorus, of which there is too much both in farmed fields and in the Sea. The most unfortunate part of all this is that unlike nitrogen, which evaporates and leaches quickly, phosphorus accrues both in the soil and in the seabed.

This is why our children will inherit the phosphorus problem from us. Today we, too, suffer from the internal load of the Baltic Sea’s seabed, which we have inherited from past generations and the past of decades ago.

We have been able to reduce the phosphorus load from cities and industries considerably during the past 40 years, but discharge runoff from cultivated fields has hardly been curbed at all.

In most cases, this is no longer the result of farmers using tons of artificial fertilizers in their fields, as fertilizers are expensive, and their prices have recently only increased. The problem is the surplus phosphorus from animal manure, and the fact that it stays where it is not needed.

In intensive farming, cost-efficient and geographically centered meat and livestock production is made possible with fodder and nutrients brought in from other regions.

In the Russian “chicken manure bomb”, for example, widely covered in the media – where huge poultry farms all located in Eastern Russia, close to the Baltic Sea, led to chicken manure runoff to the Baltic Sea  – the question really was about the inhabitants of the St. Petersburg metropolis buying large amounts of chicken products and eggs.

Feed and nutrients for the birds are brought in from the Black Earth region in Central Russia, but as manure transportation is expensive and difficult, the nutrients left behind by the chickens remain and spoil the Baltic Sea.

In the US, there is a similar area of poultry farms on the East Coast. Feed is brought in from the Midwest, but the chicken manure is left where the chickens are.

Paradoxically, even though the phosphorus from artificial fertilizers is not the direct cause for the accruing nutrients, it is still the reason behind the problem, via a detour. The production of mineral fertilizers, launched after the Second World War, enabled a specialized production structure with livestock farms are in one area, and crops and other plant-based foodstuffs for humans produced in another location, boosted by artificial fertilizers.

The resulting imbalance in nutrients led to the eutrophication of waterways all over the world after the Second World War.

In Finland, surplus manure is found especially in Satakunta, Southwest Finland, and Ostrobothnia. In Southwest Finland, volumes of phosphorus leaching from agriculture per hectare are in fact the largest in the entire Baltic Sea.

Still, we are not the only ones facing this problem. A veritable manure rally is ongoing in Europe, as surplus manure is transported e.g. from the Netherlands to Germany, from Germany to Latvia, from Denmark to Germany, and from Germany to Denmark.

Even though the nutrients and organic matter in the manure are valuable as such, getting rid of the manure is mostly a cost element for the producers. This financial calculation will not change, no matter how much we tell ourselves that we are dealing with a valuable raw material.

That is a fact, but as long as transportation and processing make manure nutrients more expensive than artificial fertilizers, we will have a manure problem.

A “croft and cow” model from the 1950s is hardly a realistic solution. Raising taxes on mineral fertilizers, on the other hand, has no chance of finding political backing, especially as they would impact crop producers, who are not directly responsible for the manure problem.

Intervention by the government in support of manure phosphorus use would be a great first step, but in the end the solution is linked to the consumers’ willingness to pay a bit more for meat that is sustainably produced, also in terms of the waterways.

Meat producers will hopefully see the business opportunity awaiting here. What we need is the kind of forward-thinking courage displayed by the pioneering company from Satakunta, who in the 1970s, long before the hype around the circular economy, managed to make chicken shit a sought-after brand for home gardeners.

Marjukka Porvari
Director of Marine Environment
John Nurminen Foundation


This column was first published on 4 February 2022 in Länsi-Suomi.