Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Visting Iceland's Food and Farming Community

Food

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A baby humpback whale tail slaps in the Pacific Ocean in front of the West Maui Mountains. share your experiences / Moment / Getty Images

The depths of the oceans are heating up more slowly than the surface and the air, but that will undergo a dramatic shift in the second half of the century, according to a new study. Researchers expect the rate of climate change in the deep parts of the oceans could accelerate to seven times their current rate after 2050, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Opinions vary among healthcare providers and the conditions of their patients, as well as the infection rate in their communities and availability of personal protective equipment. Aekkarak Thongjiew / EyeEm Getty Images

By Joni Sweet

Should you skip your annual checkup? The answer would have been a resounding "no" if you asked most doctors before the pandemic.

But with the risk of COVID-19, the answer isn't so clear anymore.

Read More Show Less
People wait in a queue at a snack bar at Island H2O Live! water park in Kissimmee, Florida on May 23 as the attraction reopens for Memorial Day weekend after closing for the coronavirus pandemic. Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Viral images of thousands of people eschewing the recommendations of medical experts and epidemiologists were on full display in the U.S. over Memorial Day weekend. In Missouri, St. Louis County officials called the images of crowds gathered at pool parties at bars and yacht clubs in the Lake of the Ozarks an "international example of bad judgment," according to The Washington Post.

Read More Show Less
Only the paper part of a drink carton would be recycled everything else, including the plastic coating or layer or aluminum foil, would be incinerated as residual waste. tavan amonratanasareegul / Getty Images

By Jeannette Cwienk

When it comes to recycling and recyclability, very little, it seems is straightforward — even something as seemingly simple as orange juice can present a conundrum. In Germany, many smaller shops sell drinks in cartons or plastic bottles, both of which will end up in the yellow recycling bin. But how do their recycling credentials stack up?

Read More Show Less
A field of organic lettuce grows at a sustainable farm in California. thinkreaction / Getty Images

By Stephanie Hiller

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the future of the Cannard Family Farm—whose organic vegetables supplied a single Berkeley restaurant—was looking stark.

Read More Show Less
Nearly 200 Canadian organizations rolled out their demands for a "just recovery." DKosig / Getty Images

By Andrea Germanos

Nearly 200 Canadian organizations on Monday rolled out their demands for a "just recovery," saying that continuing business-as-usual after the pandemic would prevent the kind of far-reaching transformation needed to put "the health and well-being of ALL peoples and ecosystems first."

Read More Show Less

Trending

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage in Edmonton on Friday, April 24, 2020. Chris Schwarz / Government of Alberta / Flickr

Anti-pipeline protests work.

That's the implication behind comments made by Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage Friday on how coronavirus social distancing requirements could ease the construction of Canada's controversial Trans Mountain Expansion project.

Read More Show Less