On my stopover in Iceland, I thought I was going to the land of sheep and geysers and ice. And while I did find these things, I also found a fascinating example of how nature combined with culture can shape a country.
My friend Marisa and I set foot in Iceland on August 4, 2013. At 64°N latitude, the days were long, and the air was…cool. And breezy. At the peak of summer, Iceland is still not a particularly warm place. Temperatures barely make their way past 60°F, and average daily highs hover around 55°F. Winter, from what I hear, is darker than anything but typically doesn’t stray too far below freezing thanks to the moderating effect of the ocean. Coming from the northeastern U.S., it’s hard to imagine suffering through the darkest of winters for a spring that never really gives way to the heat of summer. But here we were, in breezy, beautiful Iceland. The island in the North Atlantic took our breath away.
Marisa is now a vegetable farmer, and I worked on an apple orchard for a season, but back then we were just getting started on our agriculture explorations. The two of us have always shared a love of food and had just come from 2 weeks of wwoofing on a small farm in Sweden, exchanging work for room, board, and culture.
When we arrived in Iceland, we wondered, how do people live here? Does anything grow besides lichen and thyme?
The answer to the first question, for much of Iceland’s history, is: sheep, and the sea. As for the second question, the answer is yes; hardy vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and kale can also be grown with success outside in naturally, geo-thermally warmed soil. Geothermal energy from deep within the earth is easily accessible in Iceland, where the European and North American tectonic plates meet. By harnessing this energy to heat greenhouses, Iceland’s formidable climate is a stranger to the plants enclosed in glass.
The first greenhouses heated with geothermal energy in Iceland were built in 1924, and since then total greenhouse area has grown to cover over 45 acres in 2007, with annual increases in area of 1.9% between 1990 and 20001. Geothermal energy is used not only to heat these structures. Supplemental light gives plants a boost when there isn’t much actual sun, such as in the winter. And since the basic formula for photosynthesis is water + carbon dioxide + light = sugar + oxygen, some greenhouses even use supplemental carbon dioxide, which is a byproduct of industrial geothermal.
These techniques have increased the productivity of plants, which has recently decreased total greenhouse area while output stays the same. Geothermal heat is also harnessed to sterilize soil and growing media such as volcanic scoria and rhyolite. Ensuring that the growing media is sterile is important to operating a successful greenhouse, since biological contaminants can spread rapidly once inside.
So what’s grown in these Icelandic greenhouses?
Half the greenhouse space goes to vegetables and strawberries, with the remaining space going towards cut flowers, potted plants, and forest plant nurseries. All the cucumbers that are eaten in Iceland are grown in these greenhouses, as well as 70% of the tomatoes consumed in Iceland; both crops that wouldn’t otherwise be able to grow.
On my visit to Iceland, I visited a greenhouse facility called Friðheimar that alone produces 18% of Iceland’s tomatoes, or 370 tons of tomatoes per year (that’s more than 1 ton harvested each day)3. To replicate a natural ecosystem, bees are imported for pollinating the flowers, and pests are dealt with organically by using other beneficial insects as a biological control. Organic farming is experiencing a big surge, with now more than four times as many hectares farmed organically in 2015 than there were in 2006.
The greenhouse industry in Iceland has had a positive ripple effect across the country.
Growing food indoors is now a significant part of the Icelandic economy.
Greenhouses provide the ability to produce crops year-round, regardless of the weather or daylight. For a tiny island in the middle of the ocean, this is not only important economically but also contributes to food security by adding another source of fresh produce.
The availability of local, fresh produce year-round is also changing the cuisine.
While fish will likely always feature heavily, restaurants are serving salmon with cucumber and horseradish, and cod with cherry tomatoes and lemon butter – pairings that aren’t possible without either fast ships or greenhouses.
Most of the meals we ate comprised of ingredients grown in greenhouses right on the island: from tomato soup garnished with basil and sour cream; summer salad of tomato, mozzarella, pine nuts, basil, and parmesan; vegan chickpea & carrot fritters served with tomato hummus; to dessert like, vanilla cream with glazed strawberries and “skyrsorbet” (a skyr yogurt-based ice cream…yum). It’s pretty impressive to look at the creative menus that Icelandic chefs are cooking up that incorporate fresh ingredients from greenhouses with traditional more tastes.
No matter the environment or climate, it’s possible to grow food sustainably if there’s the right combination of nature and technology. Iceland isn’t going to become the banana capital of the world anytime soon, since bananas take up a lot of space to grow and are much cheaper to import.
However, putting natural geothermal energy to work for high-value, resource-efficient, and perishable crops such as tomatoes, basil, and cucumbers is clearly working. There unfortunately aren’t any trips to Iceland on my horizon, but in the spirit of growing food despite the weather, growing a basil plant in my window might be…