Commentary

Denmark Leads the Way to Plant-based Food Systems

Dr Henning Stein explains how the Scandinavian country’s national roadmap recognises a much wider web of opportunities.

Last month, in a move justifiably hailed as groundbreaking, the Danish government published the world’s first national roadmap for developing a plant-based food system. In keeping with the concept of ‘farm to fork’, the 40-page plan covers everything from promoting ‘agtech’ to helping chefs showcase the wonders of alternative proteins.

Denmark is aiming to generate around a billion dollars for its economy and create tens of thousands of jobs by becoming a global leader in this sphere. It is actually well on its way to earning such status already, having invested approximately US$170 million in the sector in 2021 alone.

Yet this is not just about GDP, employment and international standing. It is about repairing humanity’s shattered relationship with nature. Crucially, it is about acknowledging that many of the most pressing challenges confronting our planet and its inhabitants are inextricably entwined.

Launching the roadmap, Denmark’s Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Jacob Jensen, described the shift towards plant-based food as a “necessary transition”. It would be more accurate to say it is part of a necessary transition – a vital component of a much bigger picture.

This idea reflects one of the major themes to emerge from ESG Investor’s recent conference on natural capital: the need to view sustainability truly holistically. If we look at the thinking behind Denmark’s pioneering initiative – and if we look, too, at what it could achieve – we find powerful support for this all-important mindset.

Understanding interconnectedness

Several years ago, in its annual Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum used the science of complexity to depict the relationships between various existential threats. The climate crisis was placed at the centre of the resulting web of “interconnected causality”.

Within this nexus, the grim bonds between the failings of the established food system and catastrophic environmental damage are well documented. For example, the United Nations has estimated animal agriculture is responsible for around 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with nearly two thirds of that total coming from cattle.

Little wonder, then, that Denmark’s roadmap frames plant-based food production as critical to meeting the country’s climate goals. These include a 70% cut in GHGs by 2030, with 1990 levels serving as a benchmark.

As Jensen observed: “There is no doubt that a more plant-rich diet helps to reduce our climate footprint.” Yet an essential point here, as an increasing number of investors and other stakeholders are now realising, is that much more besides can be accomplished in concert.

This is because interconnected causality can be positive as well as negative. Just as a food system that relies heavily on intensive livestock farming exacerbates the climate crisis and other issues – soil degradation, water pollution, biodiversity decline and so on – a food system that favours plant-based production can play a pivotal role in alleviating the multiple problems to which it is linked.

The ripple effects of positive change

By way of illustration, we might usefully engage in a brief thought experiment: instead of a web of threats, imagine a web of opportunities. A plant-based food system sits at its heart, radiating connections in all directions.

Many of the positive corollaries are relatively easy to envisage. One I feel especially strongly about is better animal welfare – another topic now rightly earning notable attention from investors. But what if we extrapolate beyond the more obvious consequences?

Consider, for instance, the potential impact on human wellbeing. The worldwide embracing of a plant-based diet could go a long way towards narrowing the alarming gap between life spans and health spans – a phenomenon that continues to condemn more and more people to spending substantial proportions of their lives in ill health.

Enhancing quality of life is itself no mean feat, but we can stretch our line of thinking even further. The improved wellbeing made possible by plant-based food production should in turn assuage the vast economic and societal costs brought about by an ageing global population – not least when that population now stands at more than eight billion.

The Danish government is acutely aware of this. A University of Copenhagen study has suggested Denmark could prevent thousands of premature deaths and save more than a billion dollars a year in productivity and healthcare costs by transforming the nation’s food system.

Milestones and momentum

The lesson here is as simple as it is significant. Yes, many of the most pressing challenges confronting our planet and its inhabitants are inextricably entwined, as stated earlier – but so are the solutions.

Appreciation of this fact is clearly growing. In particular, the financial sector is becoming more conscious that nature-related and climate-related concerns are interdependent – and that trying to deal with them separately therefore risks mismanagement of resources and strategies.

Discussions around interconnectedness are also no longer confined to the margins in policymaking circles, as Denmark has shown. By extension, dialogue between government and the private sector now has a sharper focus on how threats and opportunities alike can be seen as a whole.

Such momentum is hugely encouraging. The hope now is that the Danes’ trailblazing efforts will herald further milestones on humanity’s shared journey by inspiring other decision-makers to exhibit this kind of thinking on the grandest possible scale.

Shakespeare wrote in ‘Hamlet’: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” I say there is instead something rotten in any state that declines to follow Denmark’s remarkable lead.

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