Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Feeding Iceland

On a tour the other day*, our guide made an offhand comment about Iceland being food self sufficient. If you know anything about Iceland - a small volcanic island nation in the north Atlantic - you might be a little skeptical of this claim. Actually, very few countries around the world are self-suffiencient in this respect (only Australia, USA, and France produce more calories than are domestically consumed). So how could Iceland possibly be?

Self-sufficiency is determined on whether a country could produce enough to feed its population, but not necessarily in practice. But let's take a look at some stats. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, imports far outweigh exports except for animal products (esp. fish, milk, eggs, and lamb) - about 1,000 to 1 for the former vs. 35 to 1 for the latter. Iceland is a rather extreme place in many ways, and available food fit for human consumption is just one example. Around 19% of the total area of iceland is used for agriculture, though only 1.2% is arable (meaning it can support crops) and the other 17.5% is permanent meadow and pastureland for all those sheep and cows. The biggest arable crops are potatoes and tomatoes (grown in geothermally heated greenhouses dotting the country). So the modern diet in Iceland may not be quite domestically possible. 

But the country (as many around the world) used to, and had to, be self-sufficient, with a diet that reflected the particularly extreme circumstances of the island nation. With a landscape of ice and fire, early settlers subsisted primarily off of fish and seafood, lamb, and skyr (a yogurt-like cheese). Having depleted what little forest existed early after settlement, Icelanders relied heavily on wind-dried haddock (it's a fish...) and meat fermented in whey (a byproduct of the ubiquitous skyr). Some grains were cultivated prior to the little ice age of the 14th century, but not of quality and quantity to produce more than meagre flatbreads (plus, what's an oven with no wood?). Dulse (a red algae harvested from the sea) and fjallagros (a lichen foraged on land) supplemented this stark diet.

Humans living in an environment as harsh and unforgiving as Iceland offers managed to eke out a living for hundreds of years, innovating with the materials they had on-hand. In a time where we have so much technology and knowledge, it is interesting that we have these discussions of self-sufficiency of food supply. Sure, humankind has traded for millenia (including those ancestral Icelanders), but never on this scale or complete global level. The rapid movement of food stuffs often allows for the most efficient production, but it also means that many countries have undermined their ability to produce food domestically to a point not easily reversible. It may never be a problem; but the resilience of societies depends on flexibility and continuation of local knowledge and experimentation. I don't know. It seems like we could take a page out of the Icelandic history book and cultivate home-grown potential.

*you may know I tend to shy away from organized tourist activities, as often being inauthentic and pricey. But this was one of those rare exceptions, where the economy relies heavily (ok ~5% GDP and 30% export revenues...) on tourism, not to mention getting around by public transport is well nigh impossible (or at least nearly as expensive as organized tours). 

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