5. Agro-food value chains in Norway

The existence of well-functioning markets and market signals that are transmitted along the whole value chain have been identified as key drivers of innovation and productivity (OECD, 2019[1]).1 Unlike other sectors of the Norwegian economy, the agro-food sector is exempted from the free trade provisions of the European Associations Agreement (EAA) with the European Union. However, the Norwegian food sector applies most of the EU regulations that are relevant for their products. Imports face prohibitive tariffs in most products that compete directly with Norwegian primary producers, and foreign products mostly enter the Norwegian market through import quotas with zero tariffs (e.g. TRQs for cheese and meat products) (Chapters 1 and 2). These import quotas have expanded in recent years. Domestic market regulations were introduced in 1936 and have just been gradually adjusted along the years, mainly to comply with international constraints. For instance, the WTO constraints on agricultural export subsidies in the 2015 Nairobi agreement required adjustments in market regulations to avoid surpluses that could previously be exported. This is the case of cheese that used to be exported with subsidies but now cannot, and domestic dairy markets need to balance. As a consequence, milk quotas were reduced, while the Norwegian firm has been investing out of Norway in Ireland (and the United States) to produces Jarlsberg cheese that otherwise could not be exported. Domestic demand increased during the Covid crisis in 2020, allowing an increase in quotas.

Market competition in the main categories of dairy, meat and egg products is limited to actors using Norwegian agricultural inputs, despite the marginal increase on imports. In 1996, the dairy monopoly in each region disappeared and federal branches of the co-operatives were merged, on dairy in 2002 into TINE, and on meat in 2002/2006 into Nortura. Additionally, there was an attempt to clearly separate the role of co-operatives as market actors as opposed to their role as provider of regulatory services.

Most imports, with grain, fruits and vegetables, as the primary exceptions, enter in the form of processed products. To create competition in the value chains, the government subsidises some product lines that use Norwegian agricultural inputs with the RÅK price equalisation schemes. The objective of the RÅK system is to expose processing while enabling the industry to use Norwegian agricultural inputs on equal price terms as EU-food processors. This system thus allows some “managed” competition between Norwegian processed agricultural products with RÅK compensation payments, and imported processed agricultural products. Norwegian processors can also, to a limited extent, make use of outward processing and import at low tariffs. Hence, there is an attempt of allowing some international competition at the processed product level.

In the late 1970s, two local family-owned supermarket chains started growing; Rema1000 out of Trondheim, and Rimi800 out of the Oslo-region. Following a horizontal integration process, the retail sector is currently dominated by three companies mainly shaped in the 1990s (NG, Coop, Rema), each of which has integrated vertically or developed strict co-ordination of wholesale and retail. These national grocery chains created centralised national procurement offices. There is one independent retail chain and, more recently, some net-based food retailers, that rely on the major retailers to perform effective wholesaling. In 2018, Iceland, an international specialised frozen food retailer, started its first outlet in Norway. The future developments of these new retailers is, so far, uncertain.

Since the 1990s, the government tried to marginally strengthen competition in all domestic supply chains. Firstly, with particular provisions for increased domestic competition in the dairy sector. More recently, with a strengthened emphasis on structural issues relating to food distribution and grocery trades and vertical relations between major suppliers and distributors.

Major technical transformation and automatisation of storing and handling facilities has taken place in wholesale/retail and in major processing companies like TINE, during the 2010s, with implications in terms of taking advantage of economies of scale. In terms of contracting, retailers work increasingly with long-term partnerships and contracts with provisions in several areas including private labelling. This has created opportunities for marketing through several retail chains for most products. The exceptions are a handful of food processors with dominant market shares that stick to their basic food branding policies; TINE, Kavli, Mills and Orkla are important examples.

“Enjoy Norway” is an information label for Norwegian food and drink that makes it easy for consumers to choose Norwegian food products. The label guarantees that the raw materials are Norwegian and from Norwegian farms, that the farmer has strictly followed Norwegian rules, and that the food is produced and packaged in Norway. One hundred and two companies are using the label on approximately 3 800 products, mainly related to meat and vegetable products. In addition to this, there are two other labels to guide consumers to Norwegian products of special geographic origin: “Specialty” and “Protected designations”.

Most primary markets are regulated and typically a co-operative provides the regulatory services on behalf of the market regulator (by delegation from the Agriculture Marketing Board). The objective is to ensure target prices for producers by avoiding surpluses. Import regulations are managed by the state. A large market share of the regulating co-operative is a pre-requisite for being effective as regulator controlling big enough volumes to have an impact on prices. Agricultural policies are a key determinant of the concentration in the value chain at primary level (Olsen and Pettersen, 2020[2]).

The raw milk market is dominated by the co-operative TINE with 94% of the market (Figure 5.1). TINE is the market regulator implementing the target prices and also dominates the dairy processing industry with more than 70% of the market. This allows efficient collection of highly dispersed primary production and some economies of scale in processing at the expense of reduced competition. There have been marginal increases in competition to TINE in the last two decades, but they have not contributed to reducing dairy prices to consumers. Norwegian relative dairy prices to consumers have been rising over time.

Red meat and pork primary production is dominated by the co-operative Nortura, in charge of implementing volume-based market balancing regulations, with 65% of the primary market (Figure 5.2). The share of Nortura in processing is reduced to 45%. Nortura is the supplier to around 100 independent small and medium-sized meat processing companies through the regulated meat wholesale market.

The grain market depends more on imports that typically cover more than half of the Norwegian demand. The co-operative Felleskjøpet has a very variable share –between 20% and 65% of grain supplies for human consumption, depending on the quality and volume of harvest from year to year and the corresponding import requirements. There are only two flourmill companies, however there are several bakeries serving the main retail chains. Each retail chain has their own vertically integrated industrial bakery, together supplying more than 75% of the market.

Fruits and vegetables are seasonally protected and 70% are imported. Bama, owned by Rema and NG, is the dominant player.

Import barriers make it difficult for international retail companies to enter the Norwegian food market. There have been two attempts to enter into the Norwegian retail-wholesale market; the Swedish-Dutch ICA/Ahold retail group in 1992-2014 and German Lidl in 2004-08. Both cases failed and were finally absorbed by the local players. ICA relied on a fragmented structure of suppliers and struggled to establish longer-term agreements with producers as their competitors had done; eventually, Coop acquired ICA. Lidl tried to establish as a hard discount actor, but struggled to find Norwegian suppliers that preferred the established retailers.

As a consequence, the concentration index in retail in Norway has increased in the last years but is in line with the index in Sweden (Figure 5.3). However, the degree of concentration is higher at regional level in particular in the eastern highly populated areas, unlike in Sweden where the concentration is higher in low populated regions. The average shop size is substantially larger in Sweden, mainly due to the legal limit on the time for shopping during weekends in Norway, which increases the incentive for proximity shops.

Cross border trade with Sweden is large representing 4% of the food retail market leading to large supermarkets being stablished in Sweden near the Norwegian border. Half of this shopping relates to food, soft drinks and household products. Tobacco and alcohol represent more than 30% of this trade because of high taxes in Norway. Import barriers that create price difference, together with exchange rate movements play very significant roles in motivating this trade.

Food prices in Norway are substantially higher than in neighbouring Nordic countries with a rising price differential compared to other consumer goods. Norwegian food prices are 30% higher than in Denmark and Sweden (Figure 5.4), 51% higher for dairy and eggs, 29% for meat. From 2005 to 2018, price differentials increased for all major food and beverage categories except meat. The main contribution to food price differentials is the support to primary agriculture, while retail margins have increased productivity sufficiently to contribute to reducing the differential (Olsen and Pettersen, 2020[2]).

Productivity has grown in the agro-food sectors at a decreasing rate, like in other sectors of the Norwegian economy. Productivity growth was higher in distribution and primary production than in processing.

On the other hand, price volatility at consumer level is similar to other European countries, however, unlike any other country in Figure 5.5 produce prices are much less volatile than consumer prices. Furthermore, the relation between producer and consumer prices which is almost linear in Sweden, shows much less linear transmission in Norway (Olsen and Pettersen, 2020[2]).

The governance system for the agro-food supply sector is rooted in two different laws. One is the “Sales and Marketing Law” (Omsetningsloven) from 1936 that concerns the sales and marketing regulations related to agriculture, and the other is the “Competition Law” (Konkurranseloven), which is derived from EU regulation. Apart from the particular exception of farmers’ market co-operation with their agricultural supply co-operatives, the competition law applies to the agro-food value chain and markets as to other markets in Norway. In addition, all food and feed safety regulations follow more or less directly from EU-law, while the Sales and Marketing Law is outside the competence of common EEA-regulation.

There has been a reduction in the number of commodities subjected to target prices in favour of other marketing balance arrangements, but the share of the value of agricultural production subject to target prices is still 61% The Agricultural Agreement negotiated annually between the government and the farmers’ unions specifies target prices and budgetary support measures (Chapter 2). Customs tariffs are not a subject of negotiation, but nevertheless are critical for achieving the price targets and income levels budgeted. Common understanding between parties is that if changes in custom tariffs within obligations set by the WTO or EEA agreements are expected, this needs to be clarified before negotiations take place (Figure 5.6).

Meeting these targets depends on collaborative efforts based on an overriding division of tasks: the government provides legal frameworks, import protection and budgetary allocations while the farmers, through their co-operatives acting as operational market regulators, take responsibility for achieving price targets. The market regulation implementation by co-operatives is financed based on turnover duties on each of the primary sectors, and managed by the semi-public Agriculture Marketing Board in accordance with the Sales and Marketing Law.

The Competition Law of 1995 applies similarly to all sectors except primary agriculture. The exception to competition law applies only to farmers’ capacity to collaborate through their own first processing co-operative companies, to which they supply their production, with agreed prices and other conditions. This provides farmers’ co-operatives with increased market power and is the legal basis for these co-operatives having roles as market regulators related to pricing. The arrangement is subject to continuous fine-tuning and monitoring from the government and the Marketing Board.

In some cases, however, agricultural policies and the market balancing regulations could enter into conflict with competition policy settings. In 2003, the competition authorities investigated Felleskjøpet’s acquisition of Norgesmøllene, a flourmill company, and the government supported the view of the competition authority, leading to a duopoly. In 2004, TINE, the co-operative that dominates the primary dairy market, won a case against its price practices. In 2005/06, the government approved the merger of different branches into Nortura despite the negative opinion of the competition authority. All large suppliers to the retail chains are currently under investigation as part of the government’s investigations into the effects on competition of discriminatory vertical terms of purchases favouring large grocery groups. Sales terms of major suppliers including farmers’ co-operatives are being investigated.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food commissioned a report to evaluate the market balancing arrangements (Ministry of Agriculture and Food, 2015[5]). The report finds that the obligation to buy gives the primary producers sales security, creating incentives for overproduction and weakening the scheme's efficiency in achieving price targets and stability. The report also highlights that these arrangements create potential sources of distortions in competition and opportunities for strategic utilisation of the system, and question the co-operative's dual role as regulator and commercial actor.

Only agricultural production is supposed to be protected through the agricultural policy, not the other parts of the value chain. The Norwegian policy seeks to allow other parts of the value chain to be competitive and regulated by the competition law. However, co-operatives like TINE and Nortura are also dominant processors, which is seen as a prerequisite for their price setting role and market regulator obligations. This is why the regulatory framework in primary markets inevitably spills over into the processing industry and causes doubt about the extent to which the exception on the application of competition law also has implications for competition and innovation downstream.

The Governmental White Paper on grocery distribution, wholesale and retailing launched a broad set of initiatives in order to improve competition in the value chain (Royal Department of Trade and Industry, 2019[6]). These initiatives add to the newly adopted law on fair trading practices in grocery distribution and the supervisory body established to help implement the law. The main emphasis of these initiatives is on avoiding suppliers’ price discrimination towards different wholesale groups and on potential constraints on effective competition arising from vertical integration. These initiatives do not tackle the impact of trade policies which differ fundamentally from those in Nordic countries with similar structural characteristics.

The current regime implying high and growing price disparities with other markets, forms barriers for creating value along the value chain. Meat and horticulture production of unique qualities are prevented from international marketing due to the heavy weight of price support. Temporary supply surpluses add costs to farmers and consumers. Additionally, distortions arising from current polices add risks for wasted opportunities related to Norway’s strengths on knowledge and human capital, including the future Norwegian circular bioeconomy.

The future circular bioeconomy holds potential for a growing, more valuable sector based on Norwegian resources, but requires convergence with global markets. The sectors subject to policy-regimes that shelter them from international exposure, will increasingly share and exploit the same technologies, competencies, natural resources, feed materials and markets with other more open sectors. The basis for enhanced value creation will be predominantly international. Widening and deepening the policy gaps between the forest- and marine bases on the one side and the agro-sector on the other, both nationally and in comparison with the European Union, risk more severe distortions of innovation and competitiveness that hamper welfare effects. Aiming for a growing, more competitive bioeconomy requires reducing such policy disparities and the price gaps of the agro-food sector with other countries.

Consumer prices are higher due to a scattered population, but also to market regulations and high import barriers, which increases disparities with neighbouring countries and between sectors. Norway is a small market and border measures are an impediment for the development of competition in the value chain. There are also indications that importers may have market power due to structural and regulatory features like vertical integration of domestic wholesale and importation, the TRQ system. This may cause higher import prices than in international markets. There is evidence that product variety and product innovation was lower in Norway than in the European Union in the 1990s, even if it has significantly improved since, driven mainly by retail and processing rather than from primary suppliers (Olsen and Pettersen, 2020[2]).

Highly regulated markets and import barriers are known to be impediments for innovation and productivity growth (OECD, 2019[1]). Apart from the historical lower product variety, there are no clear examples of how these market regulations may have reduced innovation in Norway. Recently, innovation seems to have taken place more in processes than in products or services. However, productivity growth in the processing industry in recent years has been low compared to the protected primary sector and the concentrated retail-wholesale sector. There are also examples of good performance in areas of innovation such as genetics and breeding, with links to the rapidly growing aquaculture sector. There has also been investment on digital in agriculture, including precision farming, digital interchange of data and widespread use of milking robots. The performance in terms of biosafety and veterinary medicine, has also been remarkable. However, innovations that are sustainable over time usually respond to market signals and opportunities that are not fully working upstream in the value chain. Innovation in products has declined in Norway, with many local small shops having low incentives.

Co-operatives in main agricultural value chains in Norway play the combined role of wholesale market regulator on behalf of the Sales Marketing Council, and a dominant position as a first buyer and processor. Having a large share of the primary market empowers these co-operatives to implement market regulation actions to reach target prices for primary agricultural products. However, there is an intrinsic difficulty in trying to increase competition in the processing industry and keeping the market regulatory capacity of co-operatives. The current system has the advantage of being trusted after incremental adjustments over time and can be effective in implementing the current market regulation policies. However, these regulations distort market signals and impede opportunities to reach farmers and investors, and cause extra costs to consumers and the society related to prices and variety, and downstream investment and innovation.

Agricultural trade policies and market regulations are a main driver of high food prices in Norway. They also contribute to creating some dysfunctions in the value chains such as high levels of cross border shopping, low incentives to invest in the domestic production and processing of potentially competitive products with foreign demand such as branded cheese and high quality horticulture, and distorted raw material prices that favour high degrees of processing (RÅK-products) compared to less processed foods. The high costs of milk production are both a cause and a consequence of high regulated prices for both feed and raw milk. These high costs are actually prohibitive to profitably export cheese or Norwegian specialties in the meat and horticulture sector. The current regulated system does not create private incentives for innovative solutions to this conundrum, while, as mentioned, the price disparity between Norway and its neighbours is still rising

There is high concentration in the retail-wholesale food market and even higher concentration in primary agricultural markets, which are an exception on competition policy. Competition policies are protecting societal interests that deserve to be balanced compared to agricultural interests when implementing the agricultural exception. There is also high concentration in markets that are not regulated or where the agricultural co-operatives play minor roles such as in beverages and fruits and vegetables. These high levels of concentration in the agro-food value chains are part of the current government investigation. Regulations and TRQs may also be creating market power by importers damaging consumers. The main problem here is the vertical integration of import business with the retail chains. The implications and causes of this high concentration deserve further investigation and assessment.

The government has tried to “kick-start” competition in dairy, incentivising private investors through support policies. The objective is to move the dairy sector towards a structure similar to that of the meat market where there is some competition for milk supplies from the farmers and a regulated raw milk wholesale market that supplies small and medium sized processing companies at the supported regulated price. Competing for farmers’ supplies is a challenge due to “systemic advantages” of TINE from having a co-ordinated milk distribution and primary processing structure. However, compensating potential competitors with further subsidies is unlikely to be an effective way to increase competition in supported industries. Dependence on government support rarely fosters investment and innovation and runs the risk of further concentration such as in country-wide distribution of foods.

The volume based market balancing system in beef has eliminated target prices. The liberalisation of the poultry sector has eliminated traditional market balancing. Some price convergence with other countries have been observed for meat. The meat-market, as well as fruits and vegetables, shows that less regulation and lower price disparities may go hand in hand with high product standards, sustained production volumes and productivity growth. The recent developments in the Norwegian meat value chain shows that a more ambitious policy to increase competitiveness is indeed feasible.

The Norwegian agricultural food sector and the agro-food value chain are in a challenging and gradually more constrained position due to increasing competitive disadvantages compared to neighbouring EU countries and increasing consumer price differences. The Norwegian agro-food sector may not be able to develop its potential, despite a continued strong policy to maintain and also to expand arable land and domestic agro-food production. The globally emerging bio-economy is likely to add competitive pressures in the coming years, with a globally competitive industry where Norway’s ability to protect its domestic market will be contested. To meet these challenges, Norwegian agricultural production, as well as the entire value chain, may benefit substantially from becoming more internationally competitive in the years to come, and more complementary and consistent with the growing sectors of the Norwegian bioeconomy.

There has been substantial growth in local entrepreneurship and industrial product diversity from the early 2000s, and willingness and ability to invest in state of the art technologies at all stages along the value chain. As a result, there has been improved productivity growth in particular in primary production and in retailing. However, productivity growth as well as product innovation are now in decline, and Norway should consider new policy goals and approaches to turn productivity and innovation growth levels to a level that can ensure long-term sustainability and more value creation.

Norwegian agricultural production has a number of valuable characteristics and demonstrates high levels of scientific and technological capabilities. For example, advanced breeding systems, attractive natural attributes, rich bio-diversity, solid control of plant and animal diseases and very limited use of antibiotics in production. These are competitive strengths that are hard to assess because the high level of state protection prevents Norwegian agro-food products from being put to the test in global markets that may highly value these benefits. Hence, Norway has a potential for globally sustainable value creation in food as well as in the broader, evolving bio-resource based industry.

Agricultural policies, and particularly market regulations that are based on long, lasting legislation, are very difficult to reform because they have generated trust, stability, institutions and path dependence based on a deeply rooted perception that this is the preferred way of responding to societal and policy concerns. This is the reason why an ambitious trade liberalisation (most likely through integrating the Norwegian agro-sector into the EEA agreement) seems unlikely to raise consensus. However, the current status quo of minor, almost invisible incremental changes is not delivering a clear policy path that boosts investment, productivity and innovation along the agro-food value chain.

There is a possibility to map out a much clearer policy path in the right direction with a 5-10 year horizon. This path could build on some of the experiences in the meat sector and new entrepreneurial spirit of the 2000s to exploit the many new technological opportunities and to renew and raise the political ambitions to improve the competitive position and economic efficiency of the agro-food value chain. The policy direction would focus on price convergence targets vis-à-vis neighbouring Nordic and EU countries and cost reduction. At the same time, Norway has options to intensify the use of targeted support to maintain all policy objectives, social values and non-market goods provided through country-wide, sustainable farming. This policy reform needs market, institutional and policy innovations while increasing the competitive pressures in domestic supply chains and their international trade activities.

The current EEA with the European Union and its commitment to negotiate ways to increase trade in agriculture is an opportunity to develop policies that gradually put Norway in a more competitive position. It can be used to increase competitiveness of domestic actors through reduced import tariffs and to develop more sustainable approaches to export food and bio-resource based products to niche markets. Innovation policy should focus on scalable products that exploit Norwegian competitive advantages and strengths given by nature or rooted in particular knowledge and experience.

The main benchmark driver of this change in policy should be ambitious and realistic convergence towards international (EU) prices to improve opportunities for value creation in the agro-food chain. The reform would include clear targets and a timeline for converging consumer prices and cost on all categories of food and non-alcoholic beverages. Reaching these targets will require extended competition, structural improvements, investments and creative policies. The new gradual reform path could include some of the following elements with specific targets adapted to the specificities of the different sectors.

  • Trade policies: Gradually reducing import protection to support a clear policy path towards price convergence. Prohibitive tariffs could be reduced in the first place and import quotas expanded for a larger number of agricultural products. Farm income to less competitive farms could be persevered with direct decoupled payments and instruments targeting more precisely societal priorities like marginal arable land, long-term food supply security, landscape, biodiversity and regional development.

  • Other taxes and duties: A gradual harmonisation of product taxes with neighbouring countries in addition to the effects of a gradual price convergence for food products and beverages would certainly help normalising cross-border shopping.

  • Market regulations: Transform, as a first step, target prices into indicative prices, liberating co-operatives from some of their market regulation roles by moving towards ordinary open spot and forward markets for basic agricultural commodities in wholesale markets. The elimination of target prices could be done moving into reference prices or volume based systems for market balancing such as for poultry and beef. Then, gradually reduce import tariffs to facilitate the long term convergence, for instance towards a maximum 20% price difference, net of VAT-effects, to average market prices in Denmark and Sweden for each sector. This will require a more substantial price convergence for dairy products, other highly processed food and non-alcoholic beverages than for meat products, grain based products and fruits and vegetables.

  • Competition policy: The Norwegian government is currently undertaking a major effort to explore how competition may be ensured in the future domestic food value chain – in particular in the most concentrated segments of suppliers and retailers. Competition in imported consumer food products should also be investigated more thoroughly since there are indices that consumers may suffer higher prices than what would follow from import tariffs. An ambitious policy to converge price levels should also consider reducing entry barriers for foreign retailers such as hard discount actors. The Norwegian agricultural policy is not meant to protect processing, wholesale and retailing, but there are obvious indirect effects of import protection downstream and policies need to be more ambitious in terms of reducing barriers to entry sufficiently to make entry possible. Entry of international competitors in food retailing would in particular improve competition in import markets where the Norwegian market structure is highly concentrated and vertically integrated. There is a need to care for diversity in value chains, and the distribution sector, today highly dominated by discount retailing with relatively narrow product lines.

  • Product innovation: The domestic market for niche products and food specialties has expanded to reach more Norwegians. The upscaling of such ventures in the current policy environment is, however, challenging. Norway should renew and further develop its quality brand policy for food from Norway, and in particular, building on existing initiatives such as “Enjoy Norway”, seek to promote products and producers that have already reached a high level of qualitative success at a small-scale level. Consumers should be able to distinguish the specific attributes of Norwegian food in terms of farming practices – such as animal health and welfare and low use of antibiotics – and production of landscape to create an additional willingness to pay for Norwegian products. This should allow for high prices for Norwegian products with fewer border measures and market regulations and also open opportunities for future export of high quality niche products.


[5] Ministry of Agriculture and Food (2015), Evaluation of market balancing in agriculture.

[1] OECD (2019), Innovation, Productivity and Sustainability in Food and Agriculture: Main Findings from Country Reviews and Policy Lessons, OECD Food and Agricultural Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/c9c4ec1d-en.

[2] Olsen, P. and I. Pettersen (2020), Food supply chains in Norway, causes and consequences. A background report for the OECD Agricultural Policy Review, OECD internal report.

[4] Pettersen, P. (ed.) (2020), Produktivitetsutvikling i norsk matsektor, Cappelen Damm Akademisk., https://doi.org/10.23865/noasp.93.ch3.

[6] Royal Department of Trade and Industry (2019), Grocery and competition: The battle for customers, https://www.regjeringen.no/no/dokumenter/meld.-st.-27-20192020/id2714670/.

[3] Steen, F. and I. Pettersen (eds.) (2020), Kapittel 2: Annerledeslandet Norge: Butikktilgjengelighet og markedskonsentrasjon in Sverige og Norge, Cappelen Damm, https://doi.org/10.23865/noasp.93.


← 1. This chapter relies heavily on a background report prepared by Professor Per Ingvar Olsen and Ivar Pettersen. For a more detailed discussion of the evolution of market structures in Norwegian agricultural value chains, see Olsen and Pettersen (2020[2]).

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