Icelandic Agriculture - where are the opportunities?

The article was originally published (in Icelandic) by the Icelandic newspaper Kjarninn.

Icelandic agriculture is unique in many ways. Its image has possibly the most weight, as there has been a great deal of criticism of factory farming elsewhere, especially within the United States. The Icelandic image is less connected to this criticism, which is good. Icelandic agriculture also seems to be quite effective, as productivity in Icelandic agriculture is very good in international comparison [1].

Employees in this sector therefore seem to be highly skilled, selling products that others are willing to pay higher prices for. Figure 1 shows a comparison with other areas that look at this aspect. Icelandic agriculture returns more profit per employee within the sector than in the countries Iceland frequently compares with.

Picture 1. Productivity per employee er very good in Iceland in an international comparison [1].

A recent report from the University of Iceland's Institute of Economics suggests that the releaase of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from fisheries has decreased by 43% between 1990 and 2014. In agriculture, emissions have decreased less, about 4% [2]. The report suggests that agricultural emissions could reach 500,000 tonnes by 2020.

GHG emissions in agriculture are fairly even between animal husbandry and land use (52% and 48%). The Government Action Plan from 2010 does not take measures to reduce GHG emissions from waste management, and it is assumed that general policy and legislation will lead to that reduction [2].

Agriculture accounts for about 16% of Iceland’s GHG emissions, which makes it odd why the government has not looked into the emissions that are created here. It should be noted, however, that in June 2017 a contract was signed on the development of a roadmap for the reduction of GHGs in agriculture, a step in the right direction [2].

By comparison, the fisheries industry accounts for 10% and waste 6% of emissions in Iceland. In comparison, agricultural emissions, distributed to each citizen of the country, are considerably higher than in the countries we like to compare with.

Picture 2. The possibilities of Icelandic agriculture are enormous [4].

For each citizen, for example, Norwegians, Finns, Germans, French and Americans stand better than Icelanders. As a possible explanation of the bad carbon footprint of Icelandic agriculture, it has been pointed out that the IPCC emission standards for ruminants can make the release from Icelandic animals overestimated as "the Icelandic livestock sector is somewhat smaller than the livestock used as a reference" [3].

In order to get a more realistic picture of emissions from Icelandic agriculture, further research is needed on Icelandic animals, and what their actual emissions are.

What can farmers do themselves?

That the IPCC potentially overestimates emissions from livestock, or that the IPCC does not directly apply to Icelandic livestock, may be. It is not certain, however, to what extent such an overestimate really matters, and whether the performance of Icelanders would be better than neighboring countries, despite the fact that such calculations are corrected. What this position offers, however, is that farmers take matters into their own hands, and do something about it.

Environmental impact of production can be viewed from many scientific perspectives. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is e.g. a methodology that examines the environmental impact from production, but various other measures can be used to assess agricultural efficiency. Energy efficiency (EROI) has been used [5], while other factors such as energy consumption per unit produced can be used to analyze and improve production within agriculture as a whole, but also within individual farms [6].

The results of such analyzes may be used to: (a) minimize environmental impact in agriculture, without necessary state involvement; and (b) utilize to add value to agricultural products. Such analyzes may be used, and it may even be required, to obtain a license to label agricultural products as environmentally friendly.

It has also often been shown that consumers are aware of the environmental impact of the product they are shopping, and often pay higher prices for such goods [7]. Here is a good opportunity for Icelandic agriculture to reduce its environmental impact, without the involvement of the government, and at the same time increase the value of its product.

There are many possibilities in agriculture. Farmers are naturally prospective, and know their production best themselves. Implementation of environmental impact assessments of farms can increase the value of agricultural products, and government pressure is not needed to benefit.


[1] World Bank. Sustainable Development Goals. (Virðisaukning í landbúnaði er mælieining á framleiðni landbúnaðar, hér mælt í 2010 dollurum á hvern starfsmann.)


[3] Hagfræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands. Skýrsla nr. C17:01. Ísland og loftslagsmál.

[4] Unsplash. Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn.

[5] Atlason, R. S., Kjærheim, K. M., Davíðsdóttir, B., & Ragnarsdóttir, K. V. (2015). A comparative analysis of the energy return on investment of organic and conventional Icelandic dairy farms. Icelandic Agricultural Sciences

[6] Atlason, R. S., Lehtinen, T., Davíðsdóttir, B., Gísladóttir, G., Brocza, F., Unnþórsson, R., & Ragnarsdóttir, K. V. (2015). Energy return on investment of Austrian sugar beet: A small-scale comparison between organic and conventional production. Biomass and bioenergy

[7] Sirieix, L., Delanchy, M., Remaud, H., Zepeda, L., & Gurviez, P. (2013). Consumers' perceptions of individual and combined sustainable food labels: a UK pilot investigation. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 37(2), 143-151.