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From famine to food mecca

Sometimes things go badly before they go well. Such was the case for Danish agriculture, which suffered bankruptcy and brought famine to the land, before emerging as one of the world’s most efficient agricultural industries.

By Jesper Løvenbalk Hansen, Focus Denmark no. 3


It is difficult to imagine that Denmark’s agricultural industry, which today is one of the world’s most efficient, was created by a nation that 150 years ago was unable to produce enough to feed the population.

In the 1800s, Denmark reached a historic low point. Its Norwegian territory had been lost in 1814, and after a series of economically disastrous wars in the mid-1800s, further territorial losses occurred in the southern Swedish regions of Halland, Blekinge and Skåne. To capit all, a considerable part of the Jutland peninsula was lost following a painful defeat by Germany. Denmark had become a minuscule country of a little more than 40,000 square kilometres (15,400 square miles). The nation was bankrupt and widespread famine broke out.

“In those times we experienced our worst national crisis,” says Per Holten-Andersen. From 2002 until recently, he headed the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (today the Faculty of Science of the University of Copenhagen, Ed.), an institution which can be seen as a direct result of the poverty and misery that afflicted the country in the 1800s. The government of the day vowed that never again would Denmark go hungry, and set in motion the work of developing the country and especially its agriculture through massive investment in education and research.

The Technical University of Denmark was the first to be founded, in 1829. Thereafter came the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in 1858 and the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences in 1892.“From a political perspective it was a visionary step to establish three universities, and it produced rapid results,” said Holten-Andersen to Focus Denmark while he was heading the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University. Holten-Andersen pointed out that from the end of the 1800s Denmark was once again self-sufficient in food production:

“Today we produce enough food products for 30 million people, even though Denmark’s population is only just over 5 million.”

Organisation is the key

Aided by the expansion of Denmark’s infrastructure with a nationwide railway network, and ferries between the islands and the peninsula, the focus on education and research quickly produced results. New crops were introduced and new tools and equipment were developed. The rapid industrialisation of Danish agriculture resulted in better produce in greater quantity.

The backbone of Danish agricultural development was the research conducted especially at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Copenhagen. It was here that new methods of processing milk cultures were developed, forming the foundation for Denmark’s early export successes, cheese and butter.

Better organisation of agriculture also had major significance for the country’s development. Notable in this regard was the appearance of the cooperative movement, which had a major influence on the productivity of the well over 200,000 family-run farms which constituted Danish agriculture until the end of the 20th century.

The cooperative movement was founded on the simple principle that farmers collectively invested in everything from dairies and slaughterhouses to agricultural machinery and fire insurance. This enabled the costs to be divided among many,  and allowed farmers to think expansively and protect themselves against financial ruin.

It quickly became apparent that farmers had found a form of organisation that combined family-run farming with rationalised industrial mass production of internationally competitive quality.

The spread of the cooperative movement thus helped to bring change to Danish society in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1882 the first cooperative dairy was established in Jutland, and just eight years later there were 700. Shortly before the second world war, the number peaked at around 1,400.

In economic terms, the organisation of the cooperative businesses was crucial to the industrialisation of the companies processing agricultural products, and for the strongly growing exports of bacon and butter to Britain. The effect on  armers’ revenues, and the country’s exchequer, was significant.

Butter- Lurpak
Butter was one of Denmark’s early export successes

30 million pigs

The production and export of pork have long represented an important part of Danish agriculture. Today, Danish agriculture produces 30 million pigs annually and around 85 percent of the pork produced is exported, making Denmark the world’s leading pork exporter.

As the Danish chef Claus Meyer – who is also the cofounder of Noma – writes in a review of the history of Danish pork exports:

“It was 150 years ago that pork first became an agricultural product. This created the foundation for Denmark’s current status as the world’s leading exporter of pork, based on exports of bacon to Britain. Throughout this period, significant scientific development work has been carried out. Breeding and slaughtering methods have been developed which have provided a strong global position in hygiene, growth and disease prevention.”

Meyer also notes that Denmark’s position in pig production is closely connected with the co-operative movement:

“Danish pig production is characterised by the co-operative system, where farmers own the slaughterhouses and many of the associated companies. There is collaboration throughout the production chain and so market requirements can be met, food safety and veterinary standards are high, and the industry can supply large quantities of consistent quality produce according to customers’ specifications, at a competitive price. These are the keys to the success of Danish
pork exports.”

In addition, Denmark has extensive exports in agricultural machinery and equipment.

Despite a modest land area of about 43,000 square kilometres, Denmark exports agricultural products and food worth EUR 14.6 billion, corresponding to 3.4 percent of the world market for food. Danish agricultural products are exported to 150 countries.

According to FORA, the Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority’s division for research and analysis, the Danish agricultural and food cluster is among the world’s largest, and the second largest in Europe after Bretagne in France. The
cluster employs about 175,000 people.