Iceland is greener than many other countries
In this article, I would like to introduce you to agriculture on Iceland. Despite its name (Ice-land) and the rough climate and geography (the average temperature in summer reaches only 11°C), agriculture is possible and even more sustainable than in most European countries. Let's have a closer look at the climate and flora before we speak about agriculture:
The climate of Iceland counts as subarctic, but it is still warmer than other countries/islands located at the same latitude. This is due to the North Atlantic Current, which brings some warmth and enables a variety of plants to survive. Nevertheless, there is only a limited number of plants growing on Iceland: We are speaking of 540 different plant species. As a comparison: In Germany you can find more than 9.500 different plant species (www.bfn.de). Due to the harsh weather and especially because of the strong winds, trees usually don’t grow taller than 2 meters (if they grow at all). However, approximately 85 tree species are able to survive on Iceland. In some protected areas (between high mountains) you can even find small forests with trees reaching up to 15 m. But this is more an exception than the norm.
With this untamed terrain and harsh environment (78 % of the land is not arable), you’d expect that all the fresh vegetables and fruits are imported year round. How can you possibly grow crops on an island called Iceland? An island with an average summer temperature of 11°C and with an average day length of 4-5 hours in winter. Well, Horticulture on Iceland is booming. Icelanders don't see their rough environment as a problem, they even call the difficulties they are facing as follows:
“The rough, untamed terrain and challenging weather conditions have benefited Icelandic agriculture in interesting ways. The harshness and isolation of the terrain has been instrumental in maintaining the purity of Icelandic nature and its produce.”
Horticulture on Iceland
Iceland possesses immense geothermal energy, which is due to 130 volcanic mountains. Many of them are still active and even erupted in the last century. Geothermal energy is providing approximately 26% of the nation's electricity, while geothermal heating meets 87% of all heating requirements for hot water and buildings. This also includes greenhouses. Greenhouses have been warmed by geothermal heat since 1924. This is why Icelanders are growing their own vegetables mainly indoors in modern and automated greenhouses.
The Fridheimar greenhouse farm (world-famous for its tomatoes) in South Iceland e.g. uses hot geothermal water from a borehole which is located 200 m next to their greenhouse. The temperature of the geothermal water reaches up to 95°C. Long so-called heating tubes are placed inside the greenhouse through which the geothermal water flows. As heating a huge farm is no problem, the glasses of the greenhouse are only 4 mm thick, which maximizes sunlight use. The water, which is needed for heating the Fridheimar greenhouse farm equals the annual consumption of hot water of 130 single family houses in Iceland.
During winter, when the sun only shines for a few minutes to hours on the shortest days, light is provided by state-of-the-art LED lamps. With that, Icelanders are able to benefit from year-round crop production. Indeed, 20 years ago nearly all the food was imported during winter, but this changed since LED lights are used in the greenhouses.
What are Icelandic farmers growing?
The main grown vegetables are tomatoes, cucumber, bellpeppers and cabbage. Next to that, some farmers grow strawberries indoors. During summer, carrots, rhubarb, rutabaga, cabbage, leek, potatoes, cauliflower and kale are grown outdoors. Vegetables are grown on about 120 ha, while potato fields cover about 750 ha. Greenhouses cover only 18 ha, while 25% of them are used to grow tomatoes, 20% is used for cucumbers and 20% for sweet peppers (however, these numbers change yearly). The rest is used for other edible products and ornamentals. In 2011, a total of 18,000 tons of vegetables were harvested. By now 50% of the tomatoes and cucumbers sold in Iceland is grown locally.
Geothermal heat and light are boosting Iceland's horticulture, but it doesn't stop just there:
The "ground" does not only offer geothermal heat, which is used to keep a constant temperature in the greenhouses, but also carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is used to enrich the air, which will improve crop quality and yield.
Furthermore, the greenhouses are very modernized and equipped with state-of-the-art computers, which control and monitor everything (temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and lighting). Even outdoor conditions like temperature, wind speed and direction and light are measured by weather stations on the roof of the greenhouses. In case of a drop in natural light (e.g. on a cloudy day), the computer will turn on the artificial LED lighting. With that, plants will always have optimal growth conditions. The Fridheimar greenhouse farm is even connected to the internet, so that the farmer is able to control and monitor everything via an app on his smartphone. This means, wherever he is in the world, he can e.g. decide to open the windows or provide some additional water to the plants.
Last but not least, the cold climate enables organic farming very easily: The Icelandic climate led to a low number of insects (on a side note: there are no mosquitoes), which reduced the use of pesticides to zero. If necessary, farmers use natural methods to control pests. Additionally, there is no long process chain of harvested fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes are picked when they are already completely red in the morning and are delivered to the market on the same day.
Icelanders did not only make the best out of their challenging environmental conditions, but even surpass sustainable horticulture in many other countries.
Geothermal energy in horticulture, Ragnarsson & Ágústsson, 2014