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Greenhouse Agriculture in the Icelandic Food System


Abstract and Figures

Greenhouses are a frequent feature on the Icelandic rural landscape and an integral part of Iceland’s food system. Iceland’s reserves of geothermal energy present an opportunity to extend an otherwise short growing season. This promotes sustainability, increases food security, and benefits consumers. This article examines the relative strengths of Iceland’s greenhouse sector - using a combination of statistics, observations, and interviews to understand the resource demands of greenhouse agriculture, how well greenhouses can allay some food insecurity and provide local foods. It ends with an examination of how the reduction of subsidies used to keep greenhouse agriculture going, has had an effect and forces the question of whether losing much of Iceland’s agricultural sector and locally sourced food is worth the social and political costs.
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Europ. Countrys. · Vol. 10 · 2018 · No. 4 · p. 711-724
DOI: 10.2478/euco-2018-0039
European Countryside MENDELU
Gina Butrico
, David Kaplan
Gina M. Butrico, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA,
David H. Kaplan, Department of Geography, Kent State University, Kent, OH, USA,
Received 18 May 2017; Accepted 28 June 2018
Abstract: Greenhouses are a frequent feature on the Icelandic rural landscape and an integral
part of Iceland’s food system. Iceland’s reserves of geothermal energy present
an opportunity to extend an otherwise short growing season. This promotes
sustainability, increases food security, and benefits consumers. This article examines
the relative strengths of Iceland’s greenhouse sector – using a combination of
statistics, observations, and interviews to understand the resource demands of
greenhouse agriculture, how well greenhouses can allay some food insecurity and
provide local foods. It ends with an examination of how the reduction of subsidies used
to keep greenhouse agriculture going, has had an effect and forces the question of
whether losing much of Iceland’s agricultural sector and locally sourced food is worth
the social and political costs.
Keywords: agricultural geography, sustainable agriculture, food security, Iceland, food
1. Introduction
Greenhouses are both a surprising and frequent feature on the Icelandic rural landscape. They
have gained global attention in recent years due to Iceland’s tourism boom and their inclusion on
many popular tour bus routes. Yet, they are also an integral part of Iceland’s food system,
providing fresh produce to a country that lacks a temperate climate. Farmers have been
harnessing geothermal heat for agriculture in Iceland for centuries. By planting crops on land
directly heated by geothermal steam, early farmers were able to extend growing seasons for
potatoes and grains a few months further into Iceland’s frigid winters. The practice has become
more sophisticated due to technological advances in horticultural sciences, and today, glass-
enclosed greenhouses are a common sight across Iceland’s countryside. This farming technique
began out of necessity, to increase crop yields to ensure an adequate food supply for
the population. Today, Iceland sources most of its food externally, so the role and future of
the greenhouse industry is less certain.
Iceland is not unique in this regard. As countries develop, they tend to outsource agriculture,
causing a decline in domestic food production and the conversion of farmland to other uses. This
shift is beneficial and even necessary, allowing government resources to be invested in more
specialized industries. However, domestic agriculture can still be an asset for countries that no
longer rely on it for their food supply. In the case of Iceland, agriculture, and more specifically
horticulture, has a myriad of benefits that warrant its continuation and support, including promoting
sustainability, increasing food security, and benefiting consumers. Yet, the benefits of greenhouse
agriculture also come at a cost. In this paper, we discussed the changing role of Iceland’s
greenhouses in today’s globalized economy. We argue that the benefits provided by greenhouse
agriculture are quite substantial in relation to food security and providing local foods, but
the impediments are also daunting. This poses the question of whether subsidizing greenhouse
agriculture is worth this cost.
2. Brief History
Icelandic farmers were some of the first to use geothermal heat to enrich agriculture. Records
from the 1800s describe farmers planting crops in naturally heated fields because the growing
season lasted longer into Iceland’s frigid winters. The first known geothermal greenhouses were
constructed in 1924 and improved upon the open-field method by providing protection against
weather and temperature, creating a year-long growing environment. The first covered
greenhouses were enclosed with natural materials, and later replaced with plastic. Most
greenhouses today are glass covered, though some use plastic for small-scale or seasonal
operations. Advances in greenhouse technology such as automatic watering systems and precise
temperature control allow for a greater variety and quantity of crops than could ever be achieved
outdoors in Iceland’s climate (see Figure 1) (Ragnarsson, 2015).
Fig 1. An example of a plastic covered greenhouse, located in southern Iceland. Photo by Author
As of the most recent survey in 2012, the total surface area of greenhouses was about
194,000 m2, of which about half is used for the production of edible plants. The remaining space
is used to grow ornamental flowers and tree saplings (Ragnarsson, 2015). Nearly all of
the vegetables (and a few fruits) grown in Icelandic greenhouses are consumed domestically,
though there are plans to export tomatoes and cucumbers to Denmark in the upcoming year
(Morgunbladid, 2017). Thanks to ever-advancing technology and near-complete control over
growing conditions, seemingly anything can be grown, from lettuce and peppers to bananas and
temperamental grape vines. Tomatoes and cucumbers account for a majority of total greenhouse
yields, and both provide stiff competition to their imported counterparts. Figure 2 shows how these
two crops have grown when compared to potatoes. In 2013, Icelandic tomatoes claimed two-
thirds of the domestic market and cucumbers nearly ninety-nine percent (Samband
Gardyrkjubaenda, 2015). Both of these vegetables have experienced modest, yet steady
production growth between 2000 and 2015 (Statistics Iceland). Compared with horticultural
produce, outdoor crop production proves to be more variable. For example, a rogue July frost in
2009 caused the loss of nearly 35 percent of the potato crop, and a particularly cold summer
caused a 40 percent drop in the 2013 harvest compared with the previous year. The predictability
of greenhouse crop yields compared with those traditionally grown is a testament to the industry’s
proficiency in overcoming Iceland’s inhospitable climate (Samband Gardyrkjubaenda, 2015).
While greenhouse crops do experience output fluctuations, they tend to be gradual (Statistics
Fig 2. Growth in Production of Cucumbers and Tomatoes, Compared to Potatoes. Source: Samband
Gardyrkjubaenda, 2015
Horticulture presents an advantage over traditional methods due to the ability to control all
environmental factors, including sunlight, water, temperature, and nutrients. Given Iceland’s
sparse arable land and harsh climate, greenhouses provide the opportunity for more variety,
longer growing seasons, and a greater yield of crops than could be achieved in the traditional
method. Iceland already possesses and produces most of the resources needed for greenhouse
operation, and food produced this way is significantly less energy-intensive than their imported
equivalents. A closer examination of these key operational resources reveals both successes and
opportunities for domestic, renewable sourcing.
3. Methods
Much of the data pertaining to Iceland’s horticultural sector is infrequently updated or has
reporting gaps. Since there is no farm structure database, details regarding facilities and
consumables is largely unknown. In fact, the 2010 Farm Structure Survey cited the lack of
a national farm register as a major obstacle. The survey also confirms the absence of
a standardized, current database of activities pertaining to farm holdings. (FAO Farm Structure
Survey National Methodological Report) In an attempt to bridge the language and reporting gaps,
and to collect the personal perspectives of farmers and others involved in the industry, the first
author conducted fieldwork in Iceland. Twelve farms were visited in the southwestern part of
Iceland, including both open-field and greenhouse farms, and semi-structured interviews were
conducted with farmers (see Table 1), a representative from the Farmer’s Union, and
a representative from the Ministry of Industries and Innovation. A number of informal discussions
were had with farm employees, who were busy sorting and labeling vegetables during the busy
harvest time.
Tab 1. Farms Visited and Farmers Interviewed.
Knútur Rafn Ármann
Ómar Sævarsson
Magnús Skúlason
Ingólfur Guðnason
Gróðrarstöðin Kjarr
Helga R. Pálsdóttir
Hafberg Þórisson
Svein Magnus
Ragnar Sverrisson
Vignir Jónsson
Birgir Thorsteinson
Laugarland Flúðum
Emil Gunnlaugsson
A series of interviews was also conducted with a representative from Samband Garðyrkjubænda,
or the Union of Horticulturalists, whose information, advice, and assistance were of invaluable
importance. As someone with frequent contact and interaction with greenhouse farmers, this
representative was able to provide detailed accounts of opinions and struggles they experience,
information that is not easily available elsewhere. A representative from the Ministry of Industries
and Innovation was interviewed to help understand the energy subsidies farmers receive, how
they have changed, and discussions about the future.
4. Resource Demands of Greenhouse Agriculture
The benefits of greenhouse agriculture derive from its ability to grow food that would not be
possible otherwise. Yet, these require specific resources to operate effectively. Fortunately, most
of these resources are renewable and greenhouses can be quite efficient in how resources are
used, particularly within the Icelandic context with abundant hydropower and water.
Nearly all the electricity produced and used in Iceland is derived from a renewable source. Around
75 percent is generated by hydropower, while the remainder is harnessed from geothermal
resources (Orkustofnun, 2017a). Since this electricity is produced domestically, it has the added
benefit of price stability and disruption security. Last year, Icelandic industry paid the fourth
cheapest price per kWh of electricity in all of Europe (Eurostat, 2017). Greenhouses require
electricity to operate, especially during the winter months when artificial lighting compensates for
the lack of natural sunlight. Other electricity demands include ventilation, watering, backup
heating, and computer processing (see Figures 3 and 4). Though this may seem energy intensive,
agriculture accounted for only one percent of all electricity consumed in Iceland in 2016
(Orkustofnun, 2017b).
“About eight months out of the year, we are using the lights about 17 hours a day, but in
the summer months, we can turn the lights off. In a year, our farm uses as much electricity
as a town of 3,000 people. This is a lot of electricity, but it is produced right here in Iceland
in a sustainable way.” Knútur Rafn Ármann, - Friðheimar
Fig 3. Automatic watering technology, regulated by
a computerized system. Factors controlled include
soil saturation and watering times, automatically
pumping water to plants when needed through
a tubing network (Photos by Author).
Fig 4. An example of a computerized system in
a geothermal greenhouse in Iceland. This system
automatically controls temperature, water,
fertilizer, and a variety of other growing factors.
(Photos by Author)
Plants need water to grow, and those grown in greenhouses are no exception. Iceland is home
to 103,125 km² of glaciers, ten percent of Iceland’s land area, which act as a natural storehouse
of fresh water. Also considering rainfall and other water reserves, Iceland has the highest
renewable freshwater availability per capita in Europe. Additionally, nearly all Iceland’s freshwater
does not need to be treated, which eliminates the negative environmental consequences of water
purification (OECD, 2014). Many greenhouses in Iceland are hydroponic, and though water
demands may seem high for this practice, vegetables grown in greenhouses require a tenth of
the water demanded by their open field counterparts. This is because water is used more
efficiently in hydroponic systems, reducing loss from evaporation and recycling water not used by
the plants (Barbosa et al., 2015). The renewable and plentiful nature of Iceland’s water supply
contributes to the self-sufficiency and environmentally-friendly nature of the horticulture industry.
“A tomato is 90 percent water, so the quality of water is important. We are lucky in Iceland,
we can water our plants with the same water we drink in our houses, and our water is
plentiful and clean.” Knútur Rafn Ármann, - Friðheimar
Topsoil is a scarce resource in Iceland due to persistent erosion. The Vikings deforested nearly
the entire island within three centuries of settlement, which led to desertification and a struggle to
regain healthy soil ever since (Arnalds and Ármannsson, 1999). The switch to hydroponic
technology substantially decreases the need for soil. Hydroponic plants grow in an inert medium,
such as clay, gravel, and mineral wool, while nutrients are supplied through minerals and fertilizer
mixed with the water. Stone wool is man-made mineral fiber that is used by many hydroponics
farmers because it is inexpensive and reusable. In Iceland, stone wool blocks must be imported
from suppliers in Denmark, which is arguably a more sustainable alternative to using scarce
topsoil resources. However, many farmers use or supplement stone wool with locally sourced
pumice, which is available in abundance and is an opportunity for the industry to source another
material domestically and sustainably (Figure 5). Studies have proven that yields of tomatoes
grown in pumice are similar to those grown in stone wool (Gunnlaugsson & Adalsteinsson, 1994).
“These rocks are from outside, from a nearby volcano. We use them to give the roots room
to grow and breathe.” Knútur Rafn Ármann, - Friðheimar
An additional resource benefit of greenhouse agriculture comes from their role in nurturing trees
for reforestation. The barren, rocky landscape that has made it a popular set for Hollywood is also
a testament to how difficult reforestation has been. When the Vikings arrived, an estimated
25 percent of the country was forested. Today, only about 1.5 percent of Iceland’s area has
regained woodlands, most of which has been through intentional reforestation efforts. This
dramatic ecosystem change has caused a myriad of environmental problems, specifically the loss
of fertile topsoil and its negative consequences for agriculture. Tree roots are essential for
preventing soil erosion, so the loss of trees has resulted in widespread soil displacement and
desertification (Arnalds, 2004). Soil regeneration can take decades and, if left vulnerable to
the erosive forces of wind and water, can fail to regenerate entirely without human intervention
(Arnalds, 2001). Greenhouses are an important factor in Iceland’s reforestation efforts. Because
of Iceland’s short growing season, tree saplings can take twice as long to grow as they would in
a more temperate climate. The optimized growing conditions offered by greenhouses means
faster growth and greater capacity, allowing reforestation organizations to plant more trees each
year. Icelandic law prohibits the importation of live trees, so greenhouses are essential for
the regeneration of Iceland’s forests and the future of farming (Fountain, 2017).
Fig 5. A stonewool block containing a tomato plant
in a greenhouse in southern Iceland. The farmer
has placed locally sourced gravel beneath
the block for additional drainage and to reduce
the amount of stonewool needed. (Photos by
Fig 6. A container of fishmeal produced by
an Icelandic fishmeal plant in southern Iceland.
The fishmeal is directly applied to crops, both
indoors and outdoors, to supplement the soil with
additional nutrients to aid growth. (Photos by
Overall, geothermal greenhouse agriculture in Iceland is a highly self-sufficient industry with fewer
harmful effects and even beneficial impacts on the environment. Many of the daily operating
inputs, especially electricity and water, are already sourced entirely locally and sustainably.
Though stone wool is reusable, it is a manufactured product that must be periodically imported,
so the switch to locally pumice would be a more sustainable alternative growth media. There is
also an opportunity for fertilizer to be sourced domestically. While there is no official survey of
horticultural fertilizer use and sourcing, many farmers we interviewed used imported fertilizer.
There were a few exceptions, specifically organic farmers who use fishmeal as a domestic and
sustainable fertilizer (Figure 6). Though these farmers are enthusiastic about its potential,
synthetic fertilizers still seem to dominate the demand.
5. Increasing Food Security
Though food security is typically discussed in the context of developing countries, industrialized
nations also face threats to a sufficient food supply. According to a 2004 report by the World Bank,
nearly two-thirds of developed nations lack the internal infrastructure to produce and distribute
enough food to feed their populations. Reliance on imported food poses an often-overlooked
threat to food security, namely the consequences of disruption in global supply chains (Ng, 2008).
Examples of factors that have affected food supply networks include natural disasters, political
conflicts, and economic crises. Iceland’s vulnerability to disruptions was starkly revealed during
the recent financial and environmental troubles, proving that food shortages quickly follow
an interruption in the import network.
Iceland began as a Viking settlement, whose isolation demanded total self-sufficiency and
resourcefulness. Today, Iceland is an autonomous and wealthy nation that effectively relies on
other countries for half of its food supply including many essential products. In addition, other
inputs necessary for food production must be imported (Bailes and Jóhannsson, 2011).
The history of Iceland’s shift from self-sufficiency to import-reliance reveals that as it became
more dependent on external food, the domestic agricultural sector weakened significantly.
Following the trend in other developed countries, Iceland lost the capacity to feed its population
and became vulnerable to fragile trade networks, as evidenced by two recent instances of food
shortages; the 2008 financial crisis and the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010.
After the financial crash, food importers were hesitant to do business with Iceland amidst
the uncertain economic climate, and many suppliers temporarily halted business. There was
a short period of panic in which some Icelanders hurriedly purchased food from grocery stores
and warehouse supplies dwindled rapidly. Although import networks were restored before food
supplies ran out, the food scare prompted the Icelandic government to sanction a report entitled
the Icelandic Risk Assessment Report (IRAR) that examined Iceland’s food insecurity (Bailes and
Jóhannsson, 2011). The report found that if food imports were discontinued, Iceland would be
unable to feed its population. Suggestions for improvement include establishing grain stocks,
contingency plans, and conducting further research in the area of food security in Iceland (Ministry
for Foreign Affairs of Iceland 2009). Despite the proactive and preventative spirit of this report, it
ultimately resulted in little action.
Shortly following the financial crash was a natural crisis that further exposed Iceland’s
vulnerability. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano, located in the southern portion of the country, began
erupting on March 20th, 2010 and continued until late May of the same year. The eruption was
explosive, expelling volcanic ash several kilometers into the atmosphere (Gudmundsson et al.,
2010). While glacial flooding and lava flows were damaging to the immediate area surrounding
the volcano, the atmospheric ash proved to be the most disruptive consequence of the eruption.
The ash pollution was heaviest in the south of Iceland near the volcano, which happens to be
where most of Iceland’s farms are located. Croplands were blanketed with ash, which severely
damaged and destroyed yields for the year. Livestock operations lost cattle due to respiratory
problems resulting from poisonous smoke and ash inhalation. Not only was Iceland’s internal food
infrastructure affected by the volcano, it also temporarily interrupted food importation.
Atmospheric ash halted air traffic due to the dangerous nature of flying under these conditions.
Food that was normally transported via airplane was not able to reach Iceland, and a few minor
food shortages were reported as a result (Bailes and Jóhannsson, 2011).
These events indicate a need for Iceland to consider its vulnerability to food insecurity, and to
protect its food supply from the unpredictable nature of international trade. While it’s true that
outsourcing food production is economically beneficial and even necessary, the consequential
vulnerability it causes is undeniable. To mitigate this security threat, domestic food production
and distribution networks can be preserved, not as a replacement for imports or to reach self-
sufficiency, but as a temporary food supply to safeguard against disruptions. In addition to other
local food systems such as lamb and dairy, greenhouse agriculture in Iceland is a sustainable
industry and presents the unique advantage to grow food year-round and weather independently.
6. Providing Local Foods
Over the past few decades, consumers across the globe have developed a growing interest in
the source, quality, safety, and sustainability of their food. Colloquially dubbed “the local food
movement,” it is comprised of several objectives, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions,
opposing large food corporations and retail chains, strengthening family and community bonds
through food preparation and sharing, and supporting local farmers (Martinez, 2010). In addition,
food can often be seen as an emblem of national identity and the image of local food,
counterpoised against a faceless globalizing culture, can influence consumer behavior (Raento,
Icelanders have an overall positive view of locally sourced foods. According to a 2016 study, over
70 percent of Icelandic consumers think local food is healthy and safe and over 80 percent are
satisfied with the quality of their purchase. Survey respondents emphasized the value of
supporting local farmers and lowering environmental impact, and are willing to pay slightly (but
not too much) more for food grown in support of these causes (Halldórsdóttir and Nicholas, 2016).
Locally grown food is also a source of national pride. Many Icelandic food producers capitalize on
“food nationalism” through marketing that emphasizes the Icelandic nature of their products. For
example, Smjör is a major butter producer in Iceland that prominently features the phrase
“Icelandic Butter” on its products. The company website has a pastoral Icelandic countryside as
its header and on the homepage, a written history of butter-making back to the 10th century,
complete with black-and-white photo of a man hauling milk (Smjör, 2018). Like many other local
producers, Smjör uses Icelandic nationalism to add value to their products due to positive
consumer perceptions of their country.
The greenhouse industry has also capitalized on the local food movement. A branding campaign
led by a distribution and marketing company has spearheaded a labeling effort to differentiate
Icelandic-grown produce from their imported counterparts. Íslenskt Grænmeti (Icelandic
Vegetables in English) supplies farmers with labels bearing the farm name, type of vegetable,
the Icelandic flag, and the word “Íslenskir”, which translates to “Icelandic.” (Islenska, 2015). Many
of the farmers interviewed for this paper expressed enthusiasm for labeling their produce, and felt
the differentiation from imported options, even if sometimes less expensive, improved sales.
“I think these labels are good for my tomatoes, people are happy to know they were grown
right here in Iceland.” - Ómar Sævarsson - Heiðmörk
Further proof of the demand for domestic vegetables can be found in the outrage that resulted
when a supermarket chain was suspected of misrepresenting the origin of their tomatoes.
The store was accused of mixing foreign and domestic tomatoes then selling them as Icelandic
(Morgunbladid, 2012).
Given the enthusiasm among Icelandic consumers for local foods, one would assume
the Icelandic horticultural sector would be met with overwhelming support. And indeed,
the success of Íslenskt Grænmeti’s branding campaign indicates perceived value-added for food
produced in Icelandic greenhouses. However, Halldórsdóttir and Nicholas’s 2016 study found that
some consumers question the sustainability of food grown in Iceland, which presents
an opportunity to identify these reasons and improve this perception. The researchers
acknowledge the impracticality of an entirely local food economy in Iceland, especially as it relates
to drastically decreased food diversity, while also highlighting many realistic opportunities for
domestic production and sourcing.
7. Subsidizing Greenhouse Agriculture and Impediments to Its Future
Despite environmental sustainability, benefits to food security, and general Icelandic consumer
support, the future of horticulture in Iceland is uncertain. The industry requires both governmental
subsidies and protective tariffs to mitigate operating costs and remain competitive against imports,
a practice that has proven controversial. Though Iceland has frozen its bid for EU membership,
these interventions were considered incompatible with free trade agreements and would have
required amending if the bid had proceeded. On the other hand, it could be argued that Iceland’s
environment and geography is unique and requires more support and protection to remain viable.
Iceland has one of the highest levels of support of agriculture among countries in the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and accounts for 1.2 percent of
the country’s GDP. Budgets are set by the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture and implemented
by the Farmer’s Association, and are often negotiated and revised (OECD 2014). The outcomes
of these negotiations must be in accordance with the World Trade Organization Agreement, more
than twenty Free Trade Agreements within the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) states,
the EEA (European Economic Area), and agreements with Norway and the Faroe Islands.
The future of greenhouse agriculture, and indeed all agriculture in Iceland, is dependent on
governmental support of the industry. There are three ways in which Iceland has supported its
greenhouse agricultural sector: tariffs, energy subsidies and direct payments.
Tariffs have proven successful in allowing Icelandic meat and dairy to be competitive in
the domestic market. The policies are flexible and tariffs are lifted when Icelandic products are
unavailable to protect Icelandic consumers against unnecessarily inflated food prices
(Bændasamtök Íslands 2012). Greenhouse products were protected by a 30 percent customs
duty until 2002, when an agreement was reached to abolish import taxes in favor of other forms
of support. This change was followed by a rapid decline in greenhouse production. Domestic
produce struggled to compete with less expensive foreign competitors, and many farms went out
of business. Total greenhouse area was reduced by over eight percent from 204,000m3 to
187,000m3 in the year following the import tax drop, and ownership dropped approximately ten
percent, from 119 to 107 owners. Neither greenhouse counts have resumed the levels achieved
before the policy change of 2002 (Bændasamtök Íslands 2013). While it is impossible to
determine if abolished tariffs was the reason for the decline, the coincidence has left many farmers
demanding more protective tariffs, despite a ten percent reinstatement in 2007.
One of the concessions for eliminating tariffs was payments for electricity costs. The government
issued grants for energy-efficient lighting equipment and increased electricity subsidies. Directly
following the payment agreement in 2002, subsidies were roughly 40 percent of the average
income and mainly contributed towards the costs of distributing electricity (Bændasamtök Íslands
2012). However, the subsidy budget failed to keep up with inflating electricity prices and a doubled
demand across the sector. In response to the unforeseen expense growth, the government
lowered support by 30 percent. As a result, farmers limited their production and yields dropped
dramatically despite market demand for Icelandic vegetables (Samband Gardyrkjubaenda 2015).
Interviews with greenhouse farmers revealed frustration with prohibitively high energy costs and
the feeling that the government is not providing adequate support.
Bjarni Jónsson, managing director of the Icelandic Association of Horticultural Producers, voiced
concern about growing electricity costs, noting that farms were forced to scale back production
despite market demand for their products (Jonsson, 2012). Laugarás greenhouse farmer Ragnar
Sverrisson stated, “I can’t make ends meet with these prices” during a 2009 horticultural producer
protest (Iceland Review 2009).
Like many island nations, the cost of agriculture and transportation is higher in Iceland than in
neighboring countries, so the industry requires greater financial support to remain viable and
competitive (Bændasamtök Íslands 2012). And indeed, agricultural support in Iceland is well
above average. As of 2013, 44 percent of gross farm receipts were direct payments from
the government, compared with the 18 percent average across OECD (Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. Support is so high, in fact, that a 2011
European Union membership screening report found Iceland’s policies grossly unsuited to
the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, specifically citing direct payments and electricity subsidies
as areas needing revising (European Union 2011). Though EU membership negotiations have
been frozen since 2012 and withdrawn completely in March of 2015, the screening report findings
raise important questions regarding the future of agriculture in Iceland. If the agricultural sector
continues to struggle despite such robust support, this may be proof that farming is not profitable.
The question is whether the market should be allowed to dictate the fate of the industry or whether
the investment in food security is invaluable enough that it should be supported at all costs.
8. Conclusion
While Iceland relies heavily on imported food, it still benefits from a robust agricultural sector.
Domestic food production can safeguard against the unpredictable nature of international trade
networks and allow for the provision of locally sourced food. One way in which Iceland has been
able to overcome some climatic limitations are through the development of geothermal
greenhouse agriculture. Greenhouse agriculture can provide a year-round food source that is both
steady and nutritious. However, for it to be effective requires the support of the government, which
currently takes the form of direct payments and protective tariffs. National expenditure is
proportionally high compared with other European countries, leading some to question
the viability of agriculture in Iceland. We would also argue that a comprehensive and regular farm
survey needs to be done in order to accurately access the environmental sustainability, and
opportunities for sustainability, of the industry.
Our research looked at the costs and benefits of greenhouse agriculture on the ground, through
interviews with local farmers and agricultural officials. The most prominent concern among
farmers was that of governmental policies which both protect and support the industry, and how
the fate of the industry is largely dependent on these legislations. These include protective tariffs
on imported goods, subsidies for electricity costs, and production quotas. The farm visits provided
valuable insight into some common practices, including types of growth media, fertilizers, and
automated systems, factors which are infrequently reported on in the literature.
We find that there is significant market demand for greenhouse products, and that greenhouses
can help with food security and local foods. Moreover, greenhouses also benefit from renewable
resources. At the same time, greenhouses do require electricity and have depended on significant
government subsidy. These subsidies have decreased over the last several years, and there has
been a resulting decline in greenhouse production. The question is whether Iceland decides that
losing much of its agricultural sector and locally sourced food is worth the social and political
We would like to thank Bjarni Jónsson, a previous director of Icelandic Horticultural Producers,
for taking the time to connect me with farmers.
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... In 2017, an F. oxysporum fungal outbreak infected pepper greenhouses in Essex County, Ontario, resulting in major plant loss; in a single example, one greenhouse operation experienced over 12% pepper mortality [35] (pp. [121][122][123][124][125][126][127][128][129][130][131][132]. One challenge with many crop pathogens is their largely undetectable presence at early stages of infection, allowing mitigation only after significant crop damage has occurred [36] (pp. ...
... There are added challenges for more northern countries with harsher climates, such as Canada, to increase greenhouse vegetable production. Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Russia are looking to improve upon their existing greenhouse industries, which, like Canada, also commonly grow cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers [121][122][123][124]. In fact, the Russian cucumber market is already almost 100% supplied by domestic greenhouse production [125]. ...
... Research has also indicated the potential for heating greenhouses using manure-based biogas where it is expected that up to 11% of the Swiss tomato demand could be supplied domestically in this manner [127]. Icelandic greenhouse operations have been reported to harness geothermal heat to extend their growing season [123]. ...
Full-text available
Food security is a growing societal challenge. The pressure to feed a projected global population of 9.6 billion by 2050 will continue to be limited by decreasing arable land. The recent disruptions in international trade resulting from responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the importance of regional self-reliance in food production. While Canada is highly self-reliant in food categories such as meat and dairy, the nation relies heavily on international imports to fulfill fresh vegetable demands. In potential future scenarios where international trade faces disruptions, Canadian food security could be at risk. By providing local sources of fresh foods year-round, the greenhouse vegetable industry holds strong potential to overcome future food supply shortages and could become a critical contributor to self-sustainable food production in Canada. Many challenges, however, surround the Canadian greenhouse industry. Some challenges include the persistence and spread of infectious plant pathogens and forecasted labour shortages. Opportunities to alleviate such challenges include introducing more diverse commodity groups and integrating innovative technologies to accelerate efficiency within the industry. In this commentary, we examine the current state of the Canadian greenhouse industry, explore potential challenges, and highlight opportunities that could promote food security across the nation.
... Besides demand for local food, state intervention is frequently mentioned as one of many factors influencing or driving the expansion of greenhouse farming. Policy interventions in agriculture development, such as the changes of tariff policy, agricultural subsidy policy and direct payments policy, are also found to have accelerated land use transformation (Lambin & Meyfroidt, 2010) and thus have influenced the expansion and contraction of greenhouse agriculture (Butrico & Kaplan, 2018). Government interventions are also a common reason for the diffusion of greenhouse use across China (Wu & Zhang, 2013). ...
... State-led food localization faces the challenge of how to achieve a sustainable food system which could simultaneously increase food output and address consumer concerns about food safety and quality. Food localization in Western countries is usually a response to the growing interest of consumers in food quality and safety and the environmental sustainability of food consumption (Butrico & Kaplan, 2018). Unlike bottom-up food localization, state-led food localization in China currently places its emphases on food quantity in order to maintain a certain level of food self-sufficiency in prefecture-level regions. ...
State-led efforts of food localization have been conducted across mainland China under the umbrella of Vegetable Basket Project since the end of the 1980s, with the purpose of addressing urban food security. Food localization as a counter movement to globalization has been extensively studied for its debatable role in promoting the sustainability of food systems in developed economies. Previous studies failed to recognize food localization initiatives driven by the state and its significant impact on suburban farmland use. To fill this gap, this study discusses the key features of state-led food localization with the case of Nanjing, China through examining governmental policy documents, local food production plans and the remote sensing data of greenhouse expansion. Furthermore, the impacts of a state-led food localization strategy on the transition of suburban farmland use, particularly on the expansion of greenhouses, have been investigated by employing the binary logistic regression model. We argue that state-led food localization has substantially promoted the expansion of greenhouse farming for the purpose of stabilizing a sufficient local food supply, particularly vegetables. It has also provided support through means such as subsidy, agriculture extension service and technology training to smallholders, including local and migrant farmers.
... And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has detailed best management practices (BMP) for agricultural nurseries and greenhouses (EPA, 2021). Butrico and Kaplan (2018) further examined greenhouse agriculture in Iceland, which was declining due to decreasing government subsidies, using a combination of statistics, observations, and interviews, forcing the question of whether losing much of Iceland's agricultural sector and locally sourced food is worth the social and political costs. Therefore, it is of worth to study current greenhouse agricultural practices and policy in order to give further guidance on how greenhouse agriculture can be sustained, in light of its dual role as an important part of the global food supply while reducing virtual water footprints through increased local production and consumption patterns. ...
Greenhouse agriculture has become vitally important in promoting sustainable food supplies globally, especially by encouraging local production and consumption practices. However, it also represents an industry with a high risk for groundwater pollution due to much higher application limits allowed for nitrogen fertilizers compared to conventional agriculture. Although sufficient focus has been placed on characterizing any environmental impacts stemming from agriculture, including greenhouses, the influence of social, economic and political aspects on this process are generally overlooked. This one-sided focus may be partly due to the complexity of environmental systems, i.e. in measuring the state of the system accurately. However, any actions taken by a government, i.e. in the form of policy instruments, will play a key role in ensuring the safety and quality of agricultural products and the surrounding environmental systems. Insufficient knowledge regarding policy and related influential factors may thus slow the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately inhibit environmental protection. In light of this, a cross-national comparative study was carried out to enable a systematic understanding of Chinese and Danish greenhouse agriculture policy using the agro-environmental DPSIR (Driver, Pressure, State, Impact, Response) indicator framework. We critically examined whether current legislative steps for mitigating anthropogenic sources of N-pollution are suitably aimed at the parameters controlling (driving) specific pressures/impacts on groundwater. The potential for reaction (feedback/responses) within each legislative system, as well as the key gaps in policy responses for monitoring both water and N-fertilizer applied in greenhouses were identified. Notably, most responses are found to target only the pressure component of the framework. This discovery opens the door for the development of additional response mechanisms, which together could result in more sustainable policy measures for greenhouse agriculture that may be more effective, more quickly. Although many countermeasures exist for control of land, water and fertilizer use at the national level in both countries, their deployment depends heavily on effective stakeholder engagement and local-level adoption strategies, indicating a more holistic and multi-objective (less fragmented) policy approach is needed. Importantly, this paper demonstrates an alternative implementation of the DPSIR framework, where comparative study applications may be used to enable mutual learning that may enhance the uptake of disruptive solutions (technological and/or policy advancement), recognizing that incremental change may not be cost-efficient or sustainable especially for regions with critical water issues.
... In countries such as Iceland or Japan, near-surface geothermal energy can be used to sustainably heat or cool water (Goddek et al. 2015). In fact, in Iceland geothermal energy is used to grow many varieties of vegetables in greenhouses, which would otherwise be impossible to grow (Butrico & Kaplan 2018). A further option is to use waste water heat from combined heat and power units to heat up or cool down greenhouses. ...
Full-text available
Under the new Commission Regulation (EU) 2018/848 which has entered into law in January 2021, aquaponic produce cannot be certified as organic in the European Union. Given the multiple components of an aquaponic system, which involve growing plants in hydroponic conditions, recycling of fish waste and raising fish in artificial conditions, the achievement of organic certification for aqua-ponic produce is a complex matter dictated by many parameters. Although in theory and in practice aquaponics fulfils nearly all organic farming principles, rules such as the need for crops to be cultivated in soil and the ban on using recir-culating aquaculture systems currently prevent aquaponic produce from achieving organic certification. This review examines these rules in the new regulation on horticulture and aquaculture. The rules are evaluated, their foundations discussed , and suggestions are made on the type of system modifications that could potentially make it possible for aquaponic produce to be certified as organic. Suggested modifications include the use of soil in the hydroponic section and the implementation of environmental enrichment for improving the fish welfare in the aquaculture section. Several EU policies and strategies that support the development of aquaponics are also discussed, and potential policies for the development of organic aquaponics are formulated.
... In this survey, meat farmers on the Atlantic islands did not rely on greenhouses. Greenhouse production of fruits and vegetables, however, is a common feature of local agriculture in Iceland in particular [35] due to the availability of geothermal energy. ...
Full-text available
: Climate change may increase the importance of agriculture in the global Circumpolar North with potentially critical implications for pristine northern ecosystems and global biogeochemical cycles. With this in mind, a global online survey was conducted to understand northern agriculture and farmers’ perspective on environmental change north of 60° N. In the obtained dataset with 67 valid answers, Alaska and the Canadian territories were dominated by small-scale vegetable, herbs, hay, and flower farms; the Atlantic Islands were dominated by sheep farms; and Fennoscandia was dominated by cereal farming. In Alaska and Canada, farmers had mostly immigrated with hardly any background in farming, while farmers in Fennoscandia and on the Atlantic Islands mostly continued family traditions. Accordingly, the average time since conversion from native land was 28 ± 28 and 25 ± 12 years in Alaska and Canada, respectively, but 301 ± 291 and 255 ± 155 years on the Atlantic Islands and in Fennoscandia, respectively, revealing that American northern agriculture is expanding. Climate change was observed by 84% of all farmers, of which 67% have already started adapting their farming practices, by introducing new varieties or altering timings. Fourteen farmers reported permafrost on their land, with 50% observing more shallow permafrost on uncultivated land than on cultivated land. Cultivation might thus accelerate permafrost thawing, potentially with associated consequences for biogeochemical cycles and greenhouse gas emissions. About 87% of the surveyed farmers produced for the local market, reducing emissions of food transport. The dynamics of northern land-use change and agriculture with associated environmental changes should be closely monitored. The dataset is available for further investigations.
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Agri-food systems (AFS) have been central in the debate on sustainable development. Despite this growing interest in AFS, comprehensive analyses of the scholarly literature are hard to find. Therefore, the present systematic review delineated the contours of this growing research strand and analyzed how it relates to sustainability. A search performed on the Web of Science in January 2020 yielded 1389 documents, and 1289 were selected and underwent bibliometric and topical analyses. The topical analysis was informed by the SAFA (Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems) approach of FAO and structured along four dimensions viz. environment, economy, society and culture, and policy and governance. The review shows an increasing interest in AFS with an exponential increase in publications number. However, the study field is north-biased and dominated by researchers and organizations from developed countries. Moreover, the analysis suggests that while environmental aspects are sufficiently addressed, social, economic, and political ones are generally overlooked. The paper ends by providing directions for future research and listing some topics to be integrated into a comprehensive, multidisciplinary agenda addressing the multifaceted (un)sustainability of AFS. It makes the case for adopting a holistic, 4-P (planet, people, profit, policy) approach in agri-food system studies.
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This comprehensive overview of local food systems explores alternative definitions of local food, estimates market size and reach, describes the characteristics of local consumers and producers, and examines early indications of the economic and health impacts of local food systems. There is no consensus on a definition of —local” or —local food systems” in terms of the geographic distance between production and consumption. But defining —local” based on marketing arrangements, such as farmers selling directly to consumers at regional farmers‘ markets or to schools, is well recognized. Statistics suggest that local food markets account for a small, but growing, share of U.S. agricultural production. For smaller farms, direct marketing to consumers accounts for a higher percentage of their sales than for larger farms. Findings are mixed on the impact of local food systems on local economic development and better nutrition levels among consumers, and sparse literature is so far inconclusive about whether localization reduces energy use or greenhouse gas emissions.
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Increased production and consumption of local food may reduce the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of industrialized and globalized food production. Here we examined potential barriers to increasing production and consumption of food produced in Iceland. First, we developed a new framework to address the behaviors of production and consumption simultaneously, to comprehensively analyze their potential barriers. We examined structural barriers by estimating the food production capacity of Iceland, and cultural and personal barriers through survey data on cultural norms and purchasing behavior from Matís, a research and development company. We found no structural barriers preventing Iceland from increasing production of local cereals, which would compliment current local production of meat and dairy and reduce reliance on imports, currently at 50% of the daily caloric intake. However, if food production became entirely local without changing the current mix of crops grown, there would be a 50% reduction in diversity (from 50 to 25 items in eight out of ten food categories). We did not identify any cultural barriers, as survey results demonstrated that consumers hold generally positive worldviews towards local food, with 88% satisfied with local food they had purchased. More than two-thirds of consumers regarded supporting the local farmer and considerations such as environmentally friendly production, fewer food miles, lower carbon footprint as important. However, they rated the local food they have access to as lower in meeting sustainability criteria, showing that they make justifications for not choosing local food in practice. This is a personal barrier to increased consumption of local food, and implies that marketing strategies and general knowledge connected to local food in Iceland might be improved. Although the results apply to the case of Iceland, the method of identifying behavioral barriers to change is applicable to other countries, regions, or foodsheds interested in assessing their food security through an analysis of local food.
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The land, water, and energy requirements of hydroponics were compared to those of conventional agriculture by example of lettuce production in Yuma, Arizona, USA. Data were obtained from crop budgets and governmental agricultural statistics, and contrasted with theoretical data for hydroponic lettuce production derived by using engineering equations populated with literature values. Yields of lettuce per greenhouse unit (815 m2) of 41 ± 6.1 kg/m2/y had water and energy demands of 20 ± 3.8 L/kg/y and 90,000 ± 11,000 kJ/kg/y (±standard deviation), respectively. In comparison, conventional production yielded 3.9 ± 0.21 kg/m2/y of produce, with water and energy demands of 250 ± 25 L/kg/y and 1100 ± 75 kJ/kg/y, respectively. Hydroponics offered 11 ± 1.7 times higher yields but required 82 ± 11 times more energy compared to conventionally produced lettuce. To the authors' knowledge, this is the first quantitative comparison of conventional and hydroponic produce production by example of lettuce grown in the southwestern United States. It identified energy availability as a major factor in assessing the sustainability of hydroponics, and it points to water-scarce settings offering an abundance of renewable energy (e.g., from solar, geothermal, or wind power) as particularly attractive regions for hydroponic agriculture.
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In our globalizing world, the geographical locations of food production and consumption are becoming increasingly disconnected, which increases reliance on external resources and their trade. We quantified to what extent water and land constraints limit countries' capacities, at present and by 2050, to produce on their own territory the crop products that they currently import from other countries. Scenarios of increased crop productivity and water use, cropland expansion (excluding areas prioritized for other uses) and population change are accounted for. We found that currently 16% of the world population use the opportunities of international trade to cover their demand for agricultural products. Population change may strongly increase the number of people depending on ex situ land and water resources up to about 5.2 billion (51% of world population) in the SRES A2r scenario. International trade will thus have to intensify if population growth is not accompanied by dietary change towards less resource-intensive products, by cropland expansion, or by productivity improvements, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. Up to 1.3 billion people may be at risk of food insecurity in 2050 in present low-income economies (mainly in Africa), if their economic development does not allow them to afford productivity increases, cropland expansion and/or imports from other countries.
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The greenhouse industry in Iceland is based on abundant geothermal energy in form of steam or hot water. The annual use of geothermal energy in greenhouses is approx. 216 GWh/yr that accounts for 80% of the geothermal and hydroelectric energy used in horticulture. Other uses of geothermal energy are soil disinfection, 6 GWh/yr and soil heating in the cultivation of field vegetables, 15 GWh/yr. Artificial light has become an integral part of production in greenhouses to increase yield during the dark winter months. Cut flowers are now produced year-round with artificial light and this application is expected to increase substantially in vegetable production in the next decade. High-pressure sodium lamps, which are used for lighting, produce a lot of energy as heat that will partly substitute geothermal energy as a source for heating of the greenhouse, i.e. if no new lamp types will become available. Better cultivation techniques will also give more yield pr. m 2 resulting in a decreased greenhouse area. The estimated use of geothermal energy for heating greenhouses will therefore only be 114 GWh/yr in year 2011 that is approximately 60% of total geothermal and hydroelectric use in horticulture. No major changes in usage of geothermal energy for soil disinfection or soil heating in field vegetables are expected in this period. Soil heating in sports fields might increase in the next decade resulting in an annual use of 20 GWh/yr.
Fisheries are the single most important industry in Iceland, and will con-tinue to play an important role in the economy of Iceland for a long time to come. In 2001 the total catch was around 2 million tons, accounting for 62% of the country's merchandise exports. The living marine resources are, however, limited and it is important to utilize these resources in a sustainable way. It is also important to maximize their value by produc-ing high-priced products from the raw material, which is currently be-ing used for fish meal or simply discarded. For example, today all cod heads from land-based processing plants are being utilized and lately the freezing trawlers have begun freezing them onboard for processing on shore. Fortunately, most of the byproducts are no longer regarded as waste but are used as raw material for fish processing like roe, liver, mince, viscera, etc. The byproducts from salting, freezing, and canning fresh fish and other processes have different qualities and potentials. Therefore, quality management is important and new technologies are emerging that will allow a new range of products to be made from byproducts which will, for example, benefit the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, and food industries worldwide.