Interview: Tiago Krusse, originally published in DESIGN MAGAZINE
Interview with Christina Hedin, a Swedish politician with a degree in environmental sciences, who has worked on preserving artisanal foods and is active in the field of gastronomy in östersund, part of the UNESCO NETWORK OF CREATIVE CITIES. When she took part in Design Month in Graz, Austria, at the Invitation of the Creative Industries Styria, she brought with her the theme of the food revolution. A political, economic, cultural, and social vision of the current state of society.
What drew you to environmental science?
As long as can I remember I have been interested in nature, environment conservation and caring about the planet. In primary school I started a group for environment issues and even got a prize from the municipality. I grew up in the countryside with the vegetables from the garden and meat from our neighbor. I already then liked outdoor activities like hiking in the forest. When I was looking for a University, I was searching for environmental science, and that kind of education was hard to find at that time. I found one 1000 km from my home, so I moved to Östersund, which is my hometown now.
There continues to be a polarised discussion on climate change, leaving public opinion distrustful of the data scientists present on the topic. Why is it so difficult to present clear, unambiguous facts that attest to an environmental scenario?
The debate is complicated, since you listen to facts, but emotions and what group you belong to also matters. We have more women, left voters, children, and indigenous people on one side and more men and right voters on the other side. You don’t want to criticize or abandon your group, so then you select what you listen to.
The time is changing and when extreme weather events are getting more frequent and closer to your own home people are getting more convinced that the climate change is going on and now it is quite few people that totally deny the climate change.
The truth is also so hard for us humans to understand. Human brains are still developed for a life on the savanna where it was very essential to react when a burning tree branch was landing in from of us. But we did not develop skills to understand what will happen in a hundred years in another place far away from us.
Faced with the fact that man is continuing to wear down the planet’s natural resources, rising sea levels, extreme weather events and drastic changes to the soil and oceans, what can we do to preserve what is left of nature?
Humans can be extraordinarily good to cooperate and that is the only way to solve this problem. When we have a threat, we either fight or put all our efforts to solve the problem. During the pandemic we kept the distance and took the vaccine, primarily not to protect ourselves, but to protect the vulnerable, the ones that would die from the disease. During the pandemic we worked together and changed our society in a very short time. If we do the same now with the environmental issues, we can still protect quite a lot.
But the other sides of humans are that we can be quite selfish and attracted to money. Most people think that humans are above nature and animals and that it is ok to use more natural land, even if that means that animals lose their habitat. We are exploiting nature until the last tree, or the last fish is gone. It is easy to understand that if we fish sustainable, we can fish also tomorrow, but still, we don’t take the alarms seriously. If I don’t maximize my catch of fish, someone else will. And I like to get as much as possible today. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.
Humans also have problem to see the whole picture and just see our small part. We also excuse our way of thinking and say that other people are worse, and my small emissions are nothing compared to big companies or other countries. It is easy to lose hope, so why bother about things we can’t do anything about. We close our eyes and don’t want to see the consequences of our actions.
What are the most direct ways to create behavioural changes in humans that will allow them to contribute to a drastic reduction in their ecological footprint on a planetary scale?
In the small scale you can make it easy and convenient to make the environmental choice. If there is a bike line just outside your house and it will be faster to take your bike to work, you can easily make that choice. If there are reliable decent train possibilities, people will choose the train instead of flights in many cases. In Norway where electric cars have less tax, and other benefits – people are buying more electric cars. Small choices that we do on an everyday basis can have a large impact.
As long as airlines and everything else that is connected to fossil fuels are subsidized the consumers will use them more than they should without subsidies. On the global scale we also need bigger reduction in carbon dioxide and then we need to ban coal and not ask each individual to make a sustainable choice. It is hard for each individual to change the power system in their country and even harder to know if the products made in China is made with electricity from coal. And we don’t know what kind of energy is used when we make a google search or watch a movie online.
The key to make people change their behavior is information, but that is not enough. It is when we see that the crise is getter closer to us we start to use our knowledge. We fear that our favorite place can get damaged, so it is time to react. Also, our kids are important since we want our kids and grandkids to have a good life and to know that we have done everything we can to make their life good. It is also important to feel that we are not alone, when we have friends, colleagues or relatives that also make a change and then it is easier to make a step forward.
Since the war in Ukraine, many countries have increased the amount of money into military activities. That is not helping the planet at all. Military activities destroy both people and nature for a very long time and produce a lot of carbon dioxide.
Your political activity shows that your interest in environmental issues remains alive. What have you done in this field so far and which projects would you highlight for their good results and evolution of behaviour?
To survive and make progress in the political life, you need both patience and passion. And to change the society in a more sustainable way is not easy or quick, even in a municipality where the environmental issues has been prioritized and the city has made big progress. Östersund is one of three cities in Sweden that has a chance to fulfill the Paris agreement, if we continue the work. That shows how difficult it will be to fulfil the climate change goals.
My biggest contribution to the environmental work is very anonymous, it was a suggestion to change a few lines in the financial policy so that the municipality should not invest in fossil industry or mining. Financial investments are dealing with millions, even in a small city like Östersund, so moving anonymous money makes a difference.
Another more visible result of my initiatives was a climate action plan. When it was ready it contained 74 different action points about transportation, food production, energy, waste and much more.
At the moment I work to protect some of the green areas in the city. The areas are hills where you can go skiing in the winter, but also places where you can watch birds, take a walk or just enjoy nature. These places are not protected by any nature reserve, but hopefully in the near future we will have a decision that protect these areas from exploiting.
In your work as an education coordinator there is a focus on food and the importance of analysing how much nature is needed to sustain people or an economy. What has that experience been like and what projects have you implemented?
I worked for fifteen years at a National Center for Artisan Food. At the Centre people get trained to make the best cheese, a high-quality sausage, an excellent bread, or other local artisan products.
It is very fulfilling to see what kind of difference these companies are making. They use local produce for example milk, meat or berries and process it in a sustainable way. Traditional knowledge is mixed with updated knowledge about legislation and marketing. Each of these companies hire more people than what a traditional farm is doing. All farms in Sweden have been rationalized to cut costs, by buying more land and more cattle, with less people employed.
These artisan food producers employ local people in their cafés and to build their new dairy. In the small shop they sell products from other small producers in the area. In this way all these small companies are able survive in the countryside where there are few jobs. These companies attract tourists that are amazed to see how cheese is made and taste the difference from the products they buy in the supermarket.
It brought the Food Revolution theme to the last edition of Design Monat Graz. How did this opportunity arise to spread the word about the theme and what you understand by a food revolution?
Both Graz and my hometown Östersund is part of the UNESCO creative cities network, Graz in design and Östersund in gastronomy. In many meetings I take the chance to talk about sustainable food, both from stage, but a lot of the time also in conversation with people. Karl Stocker from Graz heard my special interest in food production and invited me to Graz and the Design Monat.
Food revolution for me is the urgent need for a change in the food production. In the way we are producing food we are destroying the planet and that will lead to less food in the future. Pesticides, over exploitation of water resources, cruel ways of treating animals, overfishing – is not farming for the future. We need to find a way to more sustainable way of farming and that very fast. A food revolution!
Are there models and practical experiences that can be implemented by different regions of the world? How can this be done?
In the field of sustainable food production, the UNESCO creative cities network is an interesting platform. This due to that all the cities in the network work with the UN sustainable development goals in different ways. The cities of gastronomy also highlight their food from the region and make that as a tourist attraction. To highlight, buy and eat the local products is a model that is can be implemented in many different regions.
All around the globe it is about respect, to people and to nature. That can always be done, in all places around the world. What we also can do is to care about local traditions. That does not mean we could not develop. Traditions are like a fire; you need to put on new logs on the fire to keep it going.
On the other hand, there are bad examples that come into the equation and become obstacles to the need for change. There are those who claim that supermarkets are the worst thing that ever happened and the negative impact it has on the economy. How do you assess its impact on our lives?
To blame one actor in the market is always difficult, since we are all part of an economic system, where we are just different links. Supermarkets offer food to a low price in a convenient way to the consumers. The consumers don’t need to go to several places to find the products, which make it easy for the consumers. And since easy and convenient is ranked higher by the consumers than best service and best quality supermarkets has an advantage.
You might think there are a large variety of different products in the supermarkets, but still there are just five main products, with many varieties and different packaging. In most of the products you find one or more of these products, corn, wheat, rice, soy, sugar, or palm oil. The supermarkets are a real struggle for small food producers, since the producers cannot prove that their products taste better and has a higher quality. And the farmer can’t show that their animals are treated with respect without a lot of hormones or antibiotics. In the supermarket you only see the price and the packaging. A small producer might have a higher price since the quality is higher and may not have as fancy packaging as the large company with staff that is only working with marketing. For the small producers it might be better to find other ways to sell their products, like Facebook marketplaces, farmers market or on farm shops, even though Supermarkets have a large percentage of the market.
It is a problem that farmers in different countries have different legislation but sell in the same market. The price is therefore compared, but not quality, not the animal welfare, use of pesticide or antibiotics. Schools and other official institutions need to buy food with the lowest price and cannot buy local products, just because they are local. That means that schools serve food that would be illegal to produce in Sweden, since it is ok to import food with other rules. The solution is not to make the legislation easier for the farmers, that will just lead to a worse situation for farmers and nature. The solution is rather that it should not be economic favorable to destroy nature or people’s lives.
I would not put all blame on the supermarkets, but we need to have a proper legislation that don’t allow illegal products to overload the market, and we need to support the farmers and make the life easier for them. Without farmers we die quite quickly, since very few of us can grow enough food for ourselves or hunt our own meat in the forest.
Overpopulation is rarely talked about? Why is it still a taboo subject and what are your thoughts on the subject?
The resources in the world are limited, and no population or no economic growth can grow forever. But the problem is more complex than more people lead to more problems, since the ecological footprints are very large for each rich person and very small for poor people. So, the world has an overpopulation of rich people that consume more than the world can produce.
If we like to criticize overpopulation, we need to criticize the rich people and the distribution of resources, and since a lot of people want to get rich, we don’t want to criticize our dream. We have also had examples where the state has made the plan how many children each family can get and that was very hard for the population to accept, since it is such a personal question how many children you like to have and when in your life.
The population growth is slowing down in the world. In most countries families get less children when extreme poverty is reduced, girls can go to school and when contraceptive are easily accessible. Today the younger generation think it is too expensive to have many children and that it is not easy to combine with a career, so that also leads to less children. Many countries now worry about low fertility rate and that it will be costly for the young generation to take care of the old people.
We are working very irrational with overpopulation today, our solution is not helping people in need, we rather let them die in a war or on a boat in the Mediterranean. To distribute the resources we have, and to make a good life to as many persons possible, would be a more decent way to handle the overpopulation. Some basic solidarity should be natural.
Change is needed to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment. New regulations must be put in place. But who are the regulators and those involved in decision-making?
In the democratic world we choose the leaders that serve us an easy answer to complicated questions, and the leaders make sure they will be reelected. In Europe many of the parties that don’t care about the climate and the nature have increased in power and the parties that highlight climate issues are laughed at and harassed.
A large change in the society that could make people angry and cause large protests can destabilize the country, so the leaders try to avoid that. For examples can high prices on petrol and diesel make large protests on the street.
If leaders in democratic countries don’t dare to make enough changes to save the climate, are the non-democratic doing better in taking care of the planet –the answer is no. The authoritarian countries do much less about nature, about people or about climate change. They still just care about keeping power.
I read a book about the climate changes that we already see in Sweden right now. The effects are still mild in Sweden compared to other countries. Some forest fires, draught, and flooding but they have not killed people like in many other countries. We see changes in vegetation, the snow and ice are changing and the people that are dependent on nature see the differences, like the indigenous people and farmers. But all the scientists that the author talked to were not so worried about the vegetation, but rather about the democratic system. Will we be able to handle migration, protect our democratic institutions or will we hand over the power to authoritarian politicians and start to fight about resources.
In all countries we are also governed by the economic structure. The big companies make sure that the political leaders make the rules they like. One company can have a bigger turnover than a whole country. And all leaders try to attract companies, since they deliver jobs and tax money. These companies are not democratic institutions where you can see what is going on and vote for new leaders. And companies care about the short-term profit and not about solidarity, not about the planet or the people. Companies can care about planet or people if they think it will increase their profit.
How can investment in education, taking into account an evolution in our food consumption habits, deliver results on the ground?
It is easy to say that the schools should educate in all different things and solve all problems we have in society. We see the schools as an easy solution for a lot of problems. We should start early, already in primary school with a lot of issues, climate change, how to run a company, mental health and so on.
Even if schools can’t solve all our problems, they are one important piece of the puzzle. It is important to learn in school what you need to know to survive in the world. And climate change and food production are two essential building blocks that we need to develop our knowledge in the world today.
And we can’t rely only on the kids and think that they will solve these problems in the future. We, the adults of today, need to take our responsibility so the kids have a chance to have a future. The children also learn from the adults, and not only in school, so if we can be better role models, they will have a future to look forward to.
Economic studies tell us that gastronomy and food give power and creativity to cities. What have you seen on your journey linked to UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy?
If you start asking questions to a person you never have met before about the food from his/her region you many times get a very interesting conversation. People are happy to talk about the food from the region, even if they don’t work with food. Food is a big part of our identity, our culture and about the connection to our town. This is still true, even when we import and export food all over the world.
In the UNESCO creative cities meetings there have been several chef exchanges and it is amazing to see how fast they connect, no matter what language they speak. In one of the meetings there was also a special tour for bakers, where they could learn from each other. It is pure joy when you see that people connect with each other, due to their common interest.
A lot of cities of gastronomy have the UNESCO work tightly connected to the tourism activities to highlight their special food from the area, and each city is proud of their food and their food festivals. Cities of gastronomies are not just food festivals and tourism activities. It is also about caring about the planet, giving food to the poor, sustainable agriculture, food waste, reducing coal in restaurants and educating children in local food.
Has the attention and publicity given to ecology, food production and the circular economy moved beyond laboratories and symposia?
Caring about food, the nature and animal welfare is not a new issue. In Sweden the organic organization started almost 40 years ago. Since then, they have pushed the conventional farmers and the opinion in a direction with better animal welfare and less toxic chemicals in agriculture. With the economic boom and debate about climate change and environmental issues, and scandals in conventional farms, a lot of people found organic and small-scale food. People started to pay more for quality food, at least when it was weekend or a party.
The trend of not eating meat is also growing fast in many countries. It is though, not evenly distributed in the society. Women and young people eat more vegetarian food and old people and men eat more meat. A lot of people that eat meat, see vegetarianism as an insult and gets angry at these climate activists. This polarization that was mentioned in the beginning of the questions is obvious when we look at the food people are eating.
The last years since the war in Ukraine started and the inflation has been on the news everyday things have changed. The sale of organic, small scale and high-quality products dropped quickly. Quality, animal welfare, climate change was suddenly not important when there is a war and when the prices got higher.
For you, what are the main behavioural changes that can start a process of evolution on the environmental issue?
For me the pandemic gave me some hope. The whole world made a drastic change in a very short time. In Sweden we saw that they had health issues in China. Very few people cared about it and continued their lives as normal. Then disease came to Italy. That is much closer, but still far away. There is no indication that it will come to Sweden, so we don’t have to do much. Some people started to make plans, but most people continued to travel and live a normal life.
Then the covid came to Sweden and the whole population panicked and in one week everything changed. People were buying toilet paper and other non-relevant things. After a while people came out from the panic attack and started to plan and reconstruct the society with travel recommendations and social activities. Everybody made changes in their life.
When will we run and buy toilet paper for the climate change? Are we still in China, and totally ignoring the problem, or has it come to Italy when some people are trying to tell that we soon will have a problem, and we need to take care of it. For sure it is coming closer and closer to everyone.
The climate is changing, and we see catastrophic events all around the globe. People are dying of storms, of heat, from flooding and fires. So, the disease has already come to our country, or the branch that is on fire has fallen in front of us. And when we feal that the environmental disasters are coming close we start to act with more enthusiasm. We don’t have to wait until everyone is caring about the climate until we see a change, it is enough with about 25-30 % of the population to have enough power to make a change.
I think that what we really need to minimize the gap between the environmentalists and the others. To take care of the planet should not be something nice, something feminine, something for women and children. It has to attract the smartest people in the world, the best technically advanced people and the ones that are working in the military today. We need all these clever brains to be able to solve the biggest question for humanity. We can attract these people to the battle of climate change.
What are we still in time to put right?
As long as there is life – there is hope. Even if we can’t save everything, each thing that we do matters. A person was standing on the beach after a storm and was throwing starfish back to the sea. Another person came by and asked why he was doing that. “It does not matter, since you can’t save them all.” But the man answered, “For this one it matters he said and threw another one out in the sea.”
“We can choose between collective action or collective suicide, it is in our hands.” António Guterres UN Secretary General
C O N T A C T
Director Tiago Krusse
Jardim dos Malmequeres 4, 2.º Esquerdo
1675 – 139 Pontinha (Odivelas)
F U R T H E R I N F O R M A T I O N
Photos: Courtesy of Christina Hedin. Opening photo, Sergio Diaz