Visting Iceland's Food and Farming Community
By Karen Stillerman
As a food lover and an agriculture geek, I frequently plan vacations around what there is to eat. This summer, I traveled to Iceland, ostensibly to admire its breathtaking scenery and ride its tough little horses. As a bonus, I escaped a couple weeks of DC's stifling heat. But of course, I also took the opportunity to see (and taste) this unique country's equally unique food and agriculture system up close. Here are my observations.
Weird Food is Just the Beginning
Icelanders are known for eating some very strange things. Nothing is stranger than hákarl or fermented shark, which I did not sample. Not because it sounds thoroughly disgusting—though it really does—but because sharks have been dangerously overfished around the world and I couldn't guarantee the sustainability of this delicacy. Or at least that's what I told myself. Ditto for whale, another traditional food, though one most Icelanders don't eat much today. I had no such convenient excuse for not trying pickled rams' testicles…
I did eat skyr, which is not yogurt (though I'm not entirely sure why not.) And I enjoyed salty Icelandic licorice enrobed in milk chocolate, though this proved to be a flavor combination my colleagues in the office did not appreciate for some reason. (Sorry, folks. At least I didn't bring back hákarl.)
But beyond these novelties lie a cuisine and food production systems that are closely tied to the local land and waters and influenced by past and present sustainability challenges.
Icelanders Grow (and Eat) What They Can
Iceland is a large volcanic island located just south of the Arctic Circle. As such, it's subject to some pretty serious climatic, geographic and geologic challenges. Though winter temperatures in Reykjavik—the world's more northerly capital—are moderated by the Gulf Stream, Icelandic summers are still quite cool. So while its coastal waters and rivers provide a bounty of fish and seafood, the island's volcanic soils are thin and much of its interior is covered by lava fields, mountains and glaciers, which is pretty limiting for agriculture.
Still, about 3.8 percent of the labor force worked in agriculture as of 2006 (the latest stats I found). According to the Farmers Association of Iceland, top crops include cold-lovers you might expect: potatoes, turnips, carrots and cabbage. Rhubarb does well in the climate and you can find it in gardens and escaped into the countryside from abandoned homesteads.
What you wouldn't expect are Icelandic tomatoes. But with a midnight sun shining above and the island's famous geothermal heat radiating from below, Iceland does indeed produce tomatoes (as well as peppers and even bananas!) in greenhouses. I got a chance to see these in Hveragerði, which is home to many hot springs and a horticultural college.
More than crops, though, Iceland's vast land resources are well-suited for grass and grazing animals, most notably sheep. There are some 800,000 sheep in Iceland, an astonishing number considering the human population of the entire country currently stands at just 332,000. The large national sheep herd explains why nearly every restaurant in Reykjavik offers its own variation on homey kjötsúpa or lamb soup. (Every one I tried was delicious.)
But I wondered, are all those sheep sustainable?
A Troubled Environmental History and an Uncertain Future
Iceland was first settled by Nordic explorers (aka Vikings) more than 1,100 years ago and it's thought that about 25 percent of the island was forested. But those forests were decimated for firewood and timber and the grasslands overgrazed by sheep, cattle and horses. About 30 percent of the country has been classified as man-made desert. (This 2007 NPR story features Icelandic soil scientists working to restore the environment and is worth a listen.)
Today, Iceland has a national strategy for sustainability and is carefully cultivating its image as an ecotourism mecca. As part of my horseback trip, I had the unique opportunity to stay a night on an Icelandic sheep farm and to chat a bit with the farmer.
Aðalsteinn Sigurðarson (it's a mouthful, so he goes by Alli, pictured here on the left) operates a 6,600-hectare farm (about 16,308 acres) near the city of Egilsstaðir in eastern Iceland. His great-great-grandfather bought the land in 1922 and his family has farmed there ever since. Alli's parents retired to Egilsstaðir a few years ago and none of his sisters opted to stay on the farm. Though they come and help out on weekends, he's basically managing the place by himself. The farm, called Vaðbrekka, was profiled by Forbes in 2014.
Vaðbrekka is located at 400 meters (about 1,300 feet) above sea level. (See this amazing aerial photo of the place. My group rode our horses down out of the mountains to the left one evening and crossed the river to get there.)
Alli told me proudly that there is only one farm in Iceland that is higher and farther from the coast. His flock ranges from 300 sheep in the wintertime to more than 800 during the summer.
Though I was there in July, the only sheep I saw were two hand-raised orphan lambs loitering outside Alli's back door. The rest of the flock was high up in the hills, grazing on the rich summer grasses. Alli told me his fields produce enough hay to keep the sheep fed when they come back down to the barn for the long winter.
It was hard for me to gauge the sustainability of this operation, though it seemed idyllic.
My colleague and agroecologist Marcia DeLonge studies the sustainability of grazing, mostly in the context of beef cattle here in the U.S. We know that cattle and sheep can damage fragile grasslands if not managed correctly and that they produce heat-trapping methane emissions that pose a problem for our planet. At the same time, as Marcia has written, well-managed grazing can be a better alternative to croplands in many ecosystems and can even add carbon to the soil and provide other environmental benefits.
Like Marcia, scientists in Iceland are studying the best ways to manage grazing in that country. Aided by science and science-based public policies, I hope farmers and ranchers in that country and in my own can find the right balance. Our future depends upon it.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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By Jessica Corbett
Green groups applauded Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday for introducing a pioneering pair of bills that aim to "protect the long-term health and well-being of the American people and their economy from the catastrophic effects of climate chaos" by preventing banks and international financial institutions from financing fossil fuels.