5 Food Systems Lessons the U.S. Can Learn from Denmark | Civil Eats

5 Food Systems Lessons the U.S. Can Learn from Denmark

Does food production have to sacrifice the wellbeing of workers, animals, and the environment for the sake of efficiency? Not if you’re in Denmark, it doesn’t.

Denmark Flag with Food

With its focus on dense, whole grain breads, smoked fish, berries, and a high percentage of plants, Denmark’s Nordic diet has been called “the New Mediterranean diet.” Now, it seems that we might also benefit from studying the nation’s larger structural choices when it comes to making food.

From food waste reduction to better treatment of both animals and people working in the its food industry, here are some lessons that the U.S. could afford to learn from this small northern European nation.

1. Cutting Food Waste

Last year, the Danish government estimated that the country had slashed its food waste by 25 percent over five years. Much of that drop can be traced to efforts by the organization Stop Spild Af Mad (Stop Wasting Food), which started in 2008. Danish supermarkets, even the largest chains, now deliberately discount and market food that is about to expire. They also monitor which types of food are being wasted the most—and order less of it.

WeFood, a (nonprofit) store scheduled to open this month, will sell cheap food that supermarkets can’t sell for a range of reasons; the store, located in a low-income neighborhood of Copenhagen, will invest proceeds in hunger relief organization DanChurchAid‘s projects in some of the world’s poorest countries.

In addition to these NGO projects, leading minds are trying to devise with technologies to reduce the edible waste stream. The team behind WasteTaste, a project based at Aarhus University, is working on a technology that can vacuum-dry unwanted fruits and vegetables that don’t meet producer or retailer standards and turn them into products that can be used across the food sector, whether it’s pureed fruit for a health food manufacturer or crystalline ingredients for a sports drink producer.

2. Dedicating Resources to Organic Agriculture

The Danish government not only touts the importance of organic agriculture—it’s putting its money where its mouth is. Last February, the government announced a plan to double the amount of organic farmland by 2020 (over 2007 figures)—earmarking approximately $60 million to facilitate the effort and increase organic production and supply. The country’s agriculture minister also committed to boosting the amount of organic food served in public institutions—and its ministry of defense pledged to do the same for food served at its bases.

3. Paying Food Workers Better

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

It’s been a long and slow struggle for fast food workers to get any respectable increase in the U.S., with select municipalities finally acting to meet their needs. But the fast food industry in Denmark pays its workers no less than $20 an hour—a minimum dictated not by law, but by an agreement, according to the New York Times, between Denmark’s 3F union, the nation’s largest, and the Danish employers group Horesta, which includes Burger King, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other restaurant and hotel companies.

4. Prioritizing Safe Food

Denmark has taken measures to monitor, and then protect against, the spread of salmonella in chicken houses—unlike in the U.S., where salmonella in chicken is perfectly legal and about 25 percent of raw chicken pieces are contaminated. While we average more than 1.2 million illnesses a year from this pathogen, Denmark now goes years between reported illnesses from salmonella-contaminated chicken. The country has also managed to keep its use of antibiotics in animal agriculture so low that its average level, less than 50 milligrams a year per kilogram of livestock in the country, may inspire a target for international efforts to reduce animal antibiotic use.

5. Treatment of Animals Humanely

Food journalist and author Barry Estabrook explored the differences between pork production in the U.S. and Denmark for his book Pig Tails, and found a few things—some of them seeming laughably small-—that have made an enormous impact on the welfare of pigs raised for meat, as well as the quality of the pork they are turned into. For example, farmers in Denmark are required to provide pigs with straw—not as food, but as entertainment and stimulation. Estabrook says that normally, a pig spends 75 percent of its waking hours rooting. So something as simple as throwing a softball-sized fist full of straw into a pen containing a couple of dozen growing pigs satisfies their minds, and it makes a remarkable difference in how they grow and how they act. The pigs don’t eat the straw, they just nuzzle it and bat it back and forth.

Pregnant and nursing sows in Denmark—where, Estabrook notes, the pork industry is just as concentrated as it is in the U.S.—are not kept in gestation crates either. They’re kept in larger stalls with other females.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Moreover, farmers don’t use antibiotics for growth promotion in Denmark. Estabrook says, “When they do use antibiotics it’s very strictly limited to cure disease. Producers here claim they can’t raise pork without feeding the animals constant low doses of antibiotics.”


We don’t have eat like they do in Denmark to appreciate all that they’re doing—or working to do— to create a respectable food system. From making food safer to paying workers better, it might be time for policymakers and companies in the U.S. to start taking notes.

Rachel Cernansky is a Denver-based journalist. She is the sustainability editor at Vogue Business, and her work has been published by The New York Times, National Geographic News, Grist, The Christian Science Monitor, 5280 (The Denver Magazine), Real Simple, Nutrition Business Journal, The Colorado Independent, The Daily Camera, Dowser, Satya, and others. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Jim Smoot
    I agree with 4 of the 5 points made in this article. While it is always difficult to make apples to apples comparisons between two different countries, there is a lot the the U.S. could be doing that we're not.

    I do have an issue with making the argument that fast food workers wages have a significant impact on the our food system. There are many more things that could be addressed (i.e. government subsidies, over production of certain crops, etc.). While minimum wage levels may have a social impact, I don't see the direct tie to the food system.
  2. Evelyn
    Denmark USED to be a leader in sustainable agriculture, however, with a new government in place, all the progress made in the past 4 years with the social democratic government has been erased. The new government (which has basically pandered to industrial ag's every whim) has cut all money for organics & sustainable ag. Also, other environmental programs, including a subsidy for electric cars, has been cut.

    The same goes for animal welfare laws. I wish the author had done her research properly and verified these facts (she probably doesn't read Danish). This current government has killed sustainable food in Denmark. No reason to promote a country that is no longer a model of the good food movement.
  3. Lona Alfares
    Great work is done everywhere.
    I'm from Denmark and I appreciate so much my government's achievements in protecting the whole circle of animals, workers, and consumers to get the best
    Food on the table for all - including themselves.
    I found it devastating, that people of USA, have to beg for the right to know, what they buy, eat and feed their children ! Why all this deceivement ? Are their dark reasons for not letting you know the truth behind the big Corporations leaving you in the dark ? I simply cannot trust a country with those intentions, I don't think Big is beautiful !, I like my small country, where you can look over the shoulder of any law maker, and where your voice is heard.
  4. Eugenia Redding
    Wonderful argument. In my humble opinion, Europe does much better than the US in so many aspects. Countries in Europe have effectively banned GMOs, while we have to fight our own government and its special interests to even allow individual states to require labeling of GMOs. The Corporate State rules in the US. The only thing that matters to these huge multinationals is this quarter's shareholder dividends and profits!

More from

Animal Ag


hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

With the biggest poultry company in the country backtracking and other commitments to raising healthier birds unmet, the future is rockier than it once seemed.


Nik Sharma Offers His Top Tips for Home Cooks to Fight Recipe Fatigue

Nik Sharma baking at left, and tossing a chickpea dish at right. (Photo credit: Nik Sharma)

Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)