Living in a world where climate change poses the greatest challenge for todays and future generations, animal product consumption is an important point of debate. From a rational perspective, it seems quite clear that people must consume fewer animal products, especially in countries where there is an abundant offer of other food available. But it is not so simple. Food and cooking are very deeply anchored into humankind’s imaginations of home and culture. In this text we will have a look at two examples of well-developed European countries: Italy and Finland. We will compare some of their data with Switzerland and discuss possible cultural reasons for the differences in meat and milk consumption.
SEBASTIAN: Having spent a whole year in Italy, one question has been on my mind many times. What is my favorite Italian food? The choice is sheer endless: Spaghetti con peperoni cruschi e mollica di pane, Zeppole di San Giuseppe, Risotto al radicchio, Ribollita, Pizza Marinara, Parmigiana alle melanzane, Panzerotti alle cime di rape… Just to name some examples of classic Italian cuisine. And did you realize it? All of these dishes are vegetarian, four of them even vegan! It is no coincidence that you find many vegetarian recipes in Italy. Historically, many Italians were poor and did not have money to buy meat or feed domestic animals, so they had to get creative on a grain and vegetable based diet. Meat only became affordable for everyone in the course of the 20th century. Nowadays it is so cheap that many Italians eat quite a lot of meat – 76 kg per capita in 2019, as opposed to 48 kg in Switzerland. But the annual meat consumption has actually been declining during the last decade. Although prices were relatively stable, Italians today consume 5,4 kg less meat per year than 10 years ago. This change in food preferences is most likely attributable to ethical, ecological and health-related reasoning. Interesting enough, this trend is not really a step forward, but rather a return to how it had been before. Today about 2 % of Italy’s population are vegan and an additional 6 % are vegetarians. How many vegetarians, or rather flexitarians were there in 1850? As I learned from my flatmate Rosa, the people of Lucania once started using bread crumbs as a substitute for meat. That was how the Spaghetti con Peperoni cruschi e mollica di pane were born. Old bread was also recycled in the Tuscan Ribollita, a vegetable soup on a bread basis, as I was told by Amedeo in Buonconvento. And what I found out by trying out different Pizzerias in Florence is that Pizza Marinara without Mozzarella is just as good or even better than the usual Margherita. And cheaper!
To put it in a nutshell, it is true that Italians eat a lot of meat and there are lots of typical meat dishes in Italy. But there are just as many, if not more vegan and vegetarian options in Italian cuisine. And the trend shows a return to those old recipes. So why not try a Parmigiana alle melanzane instead of a Lasagna the next time you are hungry for Italian food?
SELIN: While being in a foreign country it’s a must to try some traditional dishes. So early during my stay I started looking up traditional Finnish dishes. Beside a lot of different cakes they always told me to try reindeer meat and salmon. The most typical dish with reindeer is sautéed reindeer with mashed potatoes, lingonberry and pickled cucumber, but they serve reindeer as well in burgers or as a stew. Apart from reindeer, you will also find a lot of salmon prepared in many different ways. The most common one is salmon soup, but baked salmon or smoked salmon are eaten quite frequently as well.
Being aware of the fact that all these traditional dishes are based on animal products, I was not very surprised that Finland has the highest average of meat consumption out of the three countries we were looking at for this text. The amount is actually quite unbelievable: A Finnish citizen eats around 80 kilograms of meat per year. Compared to Switzerland, that is almost double.
What surprised me though was the percentage of vegetarians in Finland, because this number is three times higher than in Switzerland. While 11% of Finnish people are vegetarians (2% of which are vegan), only 6% are vegetarian in Switzerland (3% vegan). To explain the remaining huge gap in meat consumption, you have to take a look at the people who only occasionally eat meat: the Flexitarians. This number is quite high in Switzerland: about 20%.
As I wrote in one of my blogs Finnish people drink milk with every meal. But I was shocked when we looked up the consumption of milk in Finland. The average milk consumption per year is 101 liter. Compared to Switzerland, where people drink around 50 liter milk per year, it’s double again. In Italy, people drink even less milk with about 46 l/year.
What I ask myself more and more is the question, how Finland can be so well known for sustainability and at the same time have such a high consumption of animal products. If I think further, food must be one of the biggest problems in Finland because fruits and vegetables are mostly imported due to their climate and weather conditions, which don’t allow them to grow fruits and vegetables. Finland needs to be environment friendly in other parts of their lifestyle and production than in the food sector.
To sum up, it’s interesting to compare these three different countries. Surprising is the fact that on one side Finland has the highest average consumption of milk and meat, but on the other side they have the highest percentage of vegetarians and are well known for their sustainability. Italy on the other hand already has a long tradition with vegetarian food, but only 8% of Italian people are vegetarian.
Many factors influence the consumption of animal products in modern European countries. We have seen that tradition can play quite an important role as with the typical finnish reindeer and salmon dishes. But also health notions can be quite important as we are seeing with the crazy high milk consumption in Finland compared to Switzerland and Italy. Economical and social factors might explain the rise in meat consumption in Italy during the 20th century, but not the decrease that we were experiencing during the last decade. The drop in milk consumption was even more drastic in all three countries with -8, -19 and -36 l/year in the data of 2019 compared to 2009 in Italy, Switzerland and Finland respectively. This shows clearly that we are experiencing an important change in food culture in all three countries at the moment. Even though some dishes with animal products are still deeply rooted in the notion of national identities, we are certain that vegan and vegetarian cuisine has a great potential of becoming the heart of food culture in all three countries. No matter if people decide out of ethical, environmental or health reasons, a diet free of animal products seems to be the only possible way to choose if we want to prevent a further worsening of the climate emergency. So an easy way to keep our home and cultures a bit safer from the changes that will happen due to a greater climate change is by changing only a little part of our food culture – for our health and that of our planet.
Sebastian Albermann and Selin Gempeler