Geographically, historically, and culturally, Iceland is unique. Nevertheless, this island country located just below the Arctic Circle has many lessons to offer in Northern food security, striving for balance between self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Not surprisingly, in the government’s own words, “the fishing industry is one of the main pillars of the Icelandic economy.” A responsible, sustainable fishery is official policy, and includes a structured fisheries management system, including catch limits and ongoing stock assessments.
Arable land is limited in Iceland (less than 1 per cent). The island’s volcanic soils are thin and much of the interior is covered by lava fields, mountains, and glaciers. But while only a tiny fraction of the land is therefore under cultivation, a preference for and tradition of locally-obtained food means the produce from farms (which are generally small and family-run) finds a ready market. Not only are there hearty vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots, kale, cabbage, and rhubarb, but thanks to an abundance of geothermal energy, a cornucopia of greenhouse crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers – and even bananas. Although less than 10 percent of Icelandic farms are certified organic, most conventional farms do not use pesticides either, since there are few crop-devouring insects to contend with on the island.
Iceland’s main agricultural activity is sheep ranching, with island sheep far outnumbering human inhabitants. Government regulations mandate that the sheep spend their summers outdoors, requiring them to be freely grazing for a minimum of two months. Dairy farming also flourishes, thanks in part to strict breeding regulations that serve to keep the 1,000-year-old Icelandic cow breed free of disease. More importantly, a farmer-owned co-operative – MS Dairies – collects 98 per cent of the milk produced in the country, and helps to ensure sustainable prices for the dairy farmers. The co-op is also fostering an export industry for Skyr, Iceland’s unique yogurt-like dairy product.
A relative newcomer to the food scene is foraging, brought about in part by Iceland’s recent financial crisis, but also spurred by a growing interest in natural foods. There are two types of foraging activities in Iceland – land and seaside. Surrounded by pristine waters, the island’s beaches are a bounty of edible offerings, including mussels, clams, seagull eggs (which many consider superior to chicken eggs), and also kelp and seaweed. Moving inland, the best time for foraging plants in Iceland is during the short summer, basically late May to late July, when berries (blueberries and crowberries are common) and wild herbs abound. But the most popular foraged food is mushrooms. It is estimated Iceland has over 100 varieties of edible fungi.
In fact, foraging in Iceland has not only become common, but trendy too, popularized in part by a new generation of local chefs who feature wild, local ingredients. Iceland’s foremost restaurant, Dill, (its first and only Michelin-starred eatery), highlights foraged offerings, several of them actually obtained within the city limits of the capital Reykjavik itself. Looking to the future, the government is moving to set aside wilderness areas specifically for foraging.
Admittedly, Iceland’s current focus on sustainability was borne from hard lessons. At the time of the Viking settlement (1150 years ago), around a third of the island was covered with trees. Human expansion resulted in rampant deforestation, and sheep grazing inhibited regeneration. Over 95 per cent of the original forest cover is gone, so, not surprisingly, today Icelanders are careful to maintain an ecological balance, with tight government regulations and policies on land use and agricultural practices, as well as sustainable fishing.