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How Denmark is nudging the nation to cut back on meat

A platter of plant-based foods
A platter of plant-based foods. Photo: Dreamstime

By Sanne Wass, Bloomberg

Danish chef Rasmus Kofoed has no regrets about going mostly meat free at his three-Michelin star restaurant, even if the decision spurred a wave of hate from across Denmark.

“We got a lot of angry emails from people who said they hoped we would go bankrupt and close,” Kofoed recalls in an interview in Geranium, his chic and bright restaurant located at the national football stadium in Copenhagen.

“It’s like people think you come and steal something from them,” says Kofoed, who was undeterred by the uproar. The chef changed the menu to largely plant-based fare in 2022 and earned a coveted world’s best restaurant award that same year.

Today Geranium has more customers than ever, he says.

Geranium is part of the Danish capital’s growing reputation as a revolutionary culinary destination, but the domestic furore over its menu shows not everyone in Denmark is ready for innovative plant-based cuisine. Many Danes have been raised on bacon and butter, and feel passionately about their traditional pork sandwiches and meatballs.

This national identity with food is part of the challenge for Denmark as it undertakes an ambitious experiment to curb its 6 million people’s appetite for meat and dairy. In an effort to slash tonnes of agriculture emissions from its carbon footprint, the Nordic nation is rolling out what is the world’s first government-led action plan for plant-based foods. The 40-page strategy, which involves no bans or restrictions, embraces a number of unconventional initiatives to make animal-free meals more enticing, tastier and accessible.

This weekend, dozens of food guides will be deployed at a summer music festival to mingle with concertgoers and stage engaging plant-based cook-ups. A hospitality college in Copenhagen is developing a vegetarian chef degree, while business conferences are trying to nudge attendees toward veggie options. These are just some of the first 36 ideas getting a boost from a $100 million Plant Fund that accompanies the plan. More grants will soon be handed out after a second funding round was flooded with applications.

Creative solutions are needed to address some of the biggest unsolved climate challenges. Livestock is estimated to make up some 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a drag on land and water resources. Getting people in high-income countries to eat less meat has been singled out as a key way to help the planet. Swapping out beef for a single meal can almost halve a person’s carbon footprint for that day.

Yet, governments have typically stayed away from policies aimed at influencing consumer behaviour, especially when it comes to everyday staples. Meat is an increasingly divisive topic embroiled in political culture wars. Governments in the Netherlands and New Zealand have backtracked on livestock policies amid protests from farmers.

So the plan from Denmark — a large pork and dairy exporter — makes it even more spectacular in the eyes of the international audience, says Rune-Christoffer Dragsdahl, secretary general of the Vegetarian Society of Denmark. It lacks concrete targets and as a result is not politically contentious, something that has helped win over both vegetarians and the country’s food lobby.

“It sends a signal to countries that are similarly deeply rooted in the meat tradition that it’s possible to create dialogue and start initiatives for change. It’s easy to copy-and-paste,” Dragsdahl says. Just this week Denmark also succeeded in negotiating a tax on farm emissions with key industry players.

Other European nations have been “asking curiously” about the details of Denmark’s action plan — which the government has now translated into English — and expressing interest in taking a similar approach, says Jacob Jensen, Denmark’s food minister.

What characterises Denmark’s strategy and its Plant Fund projects is they steer clear of words like “vegetarian” or “vegan,” which helps to depolarise the topic.

Take business tourism group MeetDenmark, which has received funding to encourage people to choose plant-based foods at corporate events. One secret is to name dishes anything but vegan or vegetarian, says Sanne Holden Venlov, a green gastronomy consultant who will be training staff as part of the project.

Caterers often default to these labels, she says, but they give little information about what you’re eating.

“It doesn’t have any positive sensual words that make you want to order this fantastic meal they’ve prepared,” Holden Venlov says. “Tell me what’s in the dish, the preparation method, or the vegetables you’ve used to create it.”

The project, like several others, builds on behavioral science and “nudges,” small, easy-to-do interventions that don’t restrict people’s choices but can be a powerful lever for changing behavior.

Other Plant Fund projects are aimed at promoting a greener food culture among young Danes and teaching them how to cook without meat at the center of a meal.

One organisation Madkulturen — which means “food culture” in English — has recruited 35 food guides aged 19 to 28 for a so-called “plant corps.” The guides, who have received training in plant-based food preparation, will showcase their new skills at Denmark’s largest music festival in Roskilde from June 29, and other events in the fall.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen Hospitality College will next year offer a specialised “green food artisan” degree, taking a flexible approach that allows students to cook with eggs, milk or fish.

Kirstine Birk Petersen is taking part in the working group to develop the degree. The 27-year-old chef student is also enrolled in a green experiment class at the school and says during her first three months of studying she only cooked with meat once. Most of her time has been spent learning about preparing seaweed and kale, breeding carrots and making legume “meatballs.”

Birk Petersen, who is not a vegetarian, admits it’s a challenge to make something other than meat the hero of a meal, but says she sees great potential in learning to craft plant-based dishes that are tasteful and visually appealing. “We need to get away from the sharp divisions of who you are based on what you eat,” she says. “Vegetarian does not have to be an identity you have.”

Broadly younger people are already starting to embrace the flexitarian lifestyle Birk Petersen describes, and Danish meat and dairy producers have taken note, launching plant-based options alongside their traditional product lines. Europe’s largest dairy group Arla in 2020 released its plant-based drink and yoghurt range Jord and is now even turning its famed butter brand Lurpak into a vegan version.

“We see that many of our consumers, and not least the younger consumers, buy both dairy and plant-based products,” says Jakob Bernhard Knudsen, managing director for Jord. Some 90% of Jord customers also purchase Arla’s dairy, he added.

Still, meat remains an important part of Danish culture and tradition, as well as a source of export revenue. An average Dane eats almost three times the recommended amount of red meat, and the country’s food consumption as a result has one of the highest climate impacts per capita globally, according to the Nordic Council of Ministers. Lawmakers have drawn ire when making any attempts to change citizens’ diets in the past. A proposal in 2020 to introduce two weekly meat-free days in Danish public sector canteens was quickly withdrawn due to protests.

Danish Crown, the country’s biggest pork producer, in 2022 launched a meat-free product range in anticipation of future demand. Two years later sales remain “minuscule,” says CEO Jais Valeur. “It’s very slow. There’s a lot of noise and little action.”

Back at Geranium, Kofoed, 49, feels a slower, incremental approach may be the best way to get Danes behind more plant-based lifestyles — or else there could be backlash. He’s still serving fish and dairy, but may decide to go with a totally meat-free menu in the future. At home, while Kofoed lived fully plant-based in the first months of Covid, he now occasionally lets himself indulge in fish or cheese. His kids, too, are allowed to eat as they like, but he’s making the point of showing them delicious alternatives to meat.

“We’ve grown up with social heritage and habits that are deeply ingrained in us. And that can be difficult to change,” he says. “If you want to bring people along the journey, you have to take small steps.”

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