A warmer reception to new crops and forest-based products? Opportunities from climate change in Sweden

Last changed: 14 February 2023
Kiwi fruits hanging from branches. Photo.

The impacts of climate change pose challenges and opportunities for the production of food across the world. A Food&Cities seed funded project, led by Adan Martinez Cruz from the department of Forest Economics, is investigating how Sweden can take advantage of climate change for the production of new types of agricultural, forest and aquatic products; and how knowledge from stakeholders in low and middle-income countries can support and inform these processes.

The impacts of climate change, such as warmer temperatures and greater variation in rainfall, affects the variety and quality of food products that can be grown. Whilst these effects can be devastating for crop production in places already experiencing extreme climate conditions, such as in many countries in the global south, longer growing seasons afforded by warmers temperatures in the global north can mean bigger yearly yields and the ability to grow a greater variety of crops. Climate adaptation refers to adjustments in economic, societal or ecological systems in response to expected or actual effects of climate change – or in other words, taking advantage of opportunities of changes in the climate by adjusting to these new conditions.

In Sweden, adjusting to warmer temperatures could mean the potential to increase the spread and production of existing crops such as squash and varieties of beans, as well as potential to introduce new crop varieties such as grapes and kiwi. Not only does this bring potential economic benefits to producers, it also could support efforts towards food security by improving the access to food staples under the impacts of climate change.

The project has built a consortium of researchers and stakeholders through a variety of network meetings as part of the pilot project. The tentatively named Research and Stakeholder Network on Opportunities from Climate Change (RESOCC), comprises of a multidisciplinary group of researchers and organizations from Sweden, Norway, Ecuador and Mexico. Discussions within group have raised the importance of multi- and transdisciplinary approaches to understanding strategies for sustainable adaptation to climate change, which will pay particular attention to the trade-offs and synergies present in the agro-forestry system in Sweden.

Whilst the initial study focused on Sweden, it became apparent that a cross-country perspective is needed, as Sweden faces many of the same climate change impacts as low and middle-income countries. Many producers working in agriculture, agro-forestry and aquaculture in countries like Mexico and Ecuador already implement cultivation practices that could be a useful source of knowledge for producing alternative products in a warmer Sweden. Furthermore, experiences of producing food in places already impacted by climate change can provide a valuable source of knowledge and learning for adaptation strategies in Sweden.

For instance, as part of the project Searching unique qualities from old and alien cereals for use in conventional and organic breeding, Mahbubjon Rahmatov –researcher at the Department of Plant Breeding, Campus Alnarp, SLU— aims to provide healthier and tastier products by looking for genetic resources among old varieties and wild relatives of wheat, which can inform strategies for plant breeding. Mahbubjon points out that his research ideas are inspired by the traditional knowledge embedded in farmers in the village he grew up in Tajikistan. He also highlights that given the expected increase in temperature in several areas in Sweden, knowledge accumulated over centuries in warmer locations will, in general, be informative for Swedish farmers and forest farmers.

The project employs an interdisciplinary approach and methods to understand the diversity of challenges across sectors and systems. An overarching goal of the project is to understand the perceptions and willingness of farmers, forest owners to embrace new crops and forest-based products. A switch to new forms of climate adapted crop varieties will demand a change in production methods, significantly re-shaping the physical and cultural landscape of agriculture. Furthermore, understanding the willingness of urban residents to adapt and alter their consumption behaviours is critical for determining the acceptability of changes to food products. This urban dimension of the project is critical for engaging with potential changes in social and cultural practices due to the varying availability, affordability and desirability of foods due to climate change.

The project has held multiple meetings with the network and plans a webinar in 2023 exploring each of the sectors (agriculture, forestry and aquatic) based upon the research of the stakeholders involved. The consortium aims to apply for further funding with aim of putting forward a Horizon proposal in 2024 exploring the theme Opportunities from Climate Change – Societies’ perceptions and willingness to embrace new crops, forest-, and aquatic-based products.

Text: Andrew Gallagher