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Meat v. Fish in Sweden

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Maris Boyd Gillette | 6 September 2019

Did you catch this news clip? The Swedish Board of Agriculture (Jordbruksverket) announced that in the first half of 2019, Swedish use of meat (including for human food) has decreased, Swedish consumption of imported meat has decreased, and the market share of Swedish meat producers has increased. This chart on Jordbruksverket’s website breaks down these developments for pork, beef, lamb, and poultry. Researchers suggest these trends relate to Swedish consumers’ desire to reduce the environmental effects of their consumption and eat more ethically, healthily, and sustainably.

So what about fish? According to the 2019 Svensk konsumtion av sjömat, Swedish use of seafood (including for human food) has decreased. The Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE), who produced the study, states that human consumption has gone down from 14.7 kg per person in 2013 to 12.5 per kg per person in 2017. On the average, Swedes in 2017 ate fish and seafood about two times a week. If you think that people should eat more vegetarian or vegan food – and there are good reasons to think that, although the UN’s focus is particularly on reducing meat and dairy consumption – you will welcome this development. However, the Swedish Food Agency (Livsmedelsverket) recommends that Swedes eat more fish than these figures say, primarily for health reasons, but also as an environmentally better option than meat.

Where does the fish that people in Sweden eat come from? It’s mostly imported. 72% of Swedish seafood comes from imports and 28% from domestic producers (see figure 3). Swedish commercial fishers account for 21% of domestic production, with the rest coming from recreational fishing and aquaculture. Swedes import fish and seafood overwhelmingly from Norway, Denmark, and China (90% of the total imports). Salmon, herring, and cod are the top three fish we consume, in that order, followed by shrimp, tuna, Alaska pollock, mackerel, saithe (coalfish) and rainbow trout. Rainbow trout, which comes in at number 10, is the only fish we in Sweden consume that is primarily domestically produced (see figure 4).

Sweden has more than 3,000 km of coast, tens of thousands of lakes, and thousands of miles of rivers. Lack of local water does not explain Swedes’ preference for imported fish.

Since Swedes are eating less fish, and more than 70% of the fish and seafood consumed are imported, it’s unlikely that Swedish commercial fishers are experiencing a stronger market for what they catch. What do the numbers say? Statistics Sweden (SCB)’s figures for commercial seafishing in April, May, and June of 2019 show Swedish fishers landed less fish and earned less money than they did during these three months in 2018. The number of Swedish commercial fishers is decreasing: from 1,121 commercial fishing companies in 2008 to 968 in 2015. Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) say the number of commercial fishing boats in Sweden dropped by 18% between 2003 and 2015. By contrast, in Norway, where most of Sweden’s fish and seafood imports come from, both the numbers of fishers and the number of fishing vessels increased in 2017.

I hope to have more to say about how Swedish commercial fishers are doing soon, partly because of a survey (see a copy here) from Fishing for Solutions sent to Sweden’s 835 holders of commercial fishing licenses. We’ve received 334 responses. Last Friday afternoon I opened envelopes and sorted the surveys by where people fish, e.g., the Baltic, the west coast, etc. This took a while, so I only quickly read some of the responses, but two things stood out. First, many fishers said that they were thinking about quitting fishing. Second, only one responder – a crayfish fisher on the west coast – said he was “thriving.”

So here’s the score. Swedish meat producers are benefitting from Swedish consumers’ desires to eat sustainable, ethical, and local food. Swedish fishers are not. Why?

Food for thought.


Maris Boyd Gillette is a social anthropologist and filmmaker whose research explores how capitalist processes affect group identities, material culture, and economic practices. She has studied porcelain workers and entrepreneurs in Jingdezhen, southeast China, Chinese Muslims in Xi’an, northwest China, and urban neighborhoods in the midwestern and eastern United States. Gillette works regularly with museums on exhibitions, public history, and educational initiatives, including the Campbell House Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the St Louis Art Museum, and the Missouri History Museum. She has participated in several community engagement initiatives, including the community history and digital media project Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, for which she received a Courage in Media Award from the Council on American Islamic Relations in 2012. She is Professor of Social Anthropology, School of Global Studies, the University of Gothenburg.



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