Back in September, I had the honor of presenting at the Icelandic Health Symposium along with some brilliant folks like Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, Dr. Bryan Walsh, Dr. Satchindanada Panda, Dr. Lilja Kjalarsdottir, Dr. Tommy Wood, Dr. Doug McGuff and Ben Greenfield. The theme was longevity. We heard a lot about how diet, food timing, sleep, movement, stress and social factors play into lifespan. My question was…
I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few days touring Iceland with my husband before the conference started. What I saw was pretty much a moonscape with a whole lot of sheep and horses, very few trees and almost no soil. The Vikings removed all the trees when they arrived in the late 9th century.
There are about 800,000 sheep in Iceland and only about 323,000 Icelanders. The sheep seemed to thrive on the patchy landscape, but because they have lost their flocking instincts (no predators on the island) the animals really spread out. Farmers allow their sheep to graze highland areas in the summer and round them up to bring indoors for the winter. This is not really ideal for the land or the sheep. Because they have unlimited access to any patch of grass they wish, the animals are able to overgraze some areas and any parasite load is easily transferred to other sheep. The pasture is not given a long enough rest period before another animal comes along to graze.
I didn’t see any examples of intensive grazing practices, meaning the farmers use electric fencing to force the sheep to graze only smaller portions of pasture at a time, then allowing a longer rest period, typical in the Savory Institute’s “Holistic Management” technique.
Icelanders are eating much less lamb these days. In 1983, lamb (also called “mutton”) was 70% of their meat intake. Today, chicken and pork are more popular than lamb. In 1983, Icelanders at 4.3kg of chicken per year. In 2013, that number went up to a whopping 27kg of chicken per year!
Some have listed the Icelandic diet as the best, even though their intake of fruit and vegetables is quite low. Although Iceland ranks among the longest lived populations in the world, I’m concerned their shift from red meat and fish to pork, chicken, and processed foods will be their downfall from a nutrition, environmental, economic and cultural standpoint. The Icelandic farmed fish industry is also rapidly expanding, with numerous issues arrising.
Today, Icelandic children rank second only to Greece for the most obese in Europe. In the overall population, 61.7% of Icelanders are obese, up from 12.2% in 1990. This is worse than America with an obesity rate of 66.3%. Their current government dietary recommendations include foods like low fat dairy, grains twice a day, and limited meat consumption – a far cry from their traditional foods rich in red meat, fatty fish, butter, cheese and other full-fat fermented dairy.
Irrational nutrition fear of red meat (thanks in a large part to the media and US dietary guidelines) plus the influx of cheap grain-fed, factory farmed chicken and pork are partially to blame for the lower interest in lamb. Food is insanely expensive there. Lunch was easily $100 each day. I found a simple burger was about $25 – $40 in US dollars. Restrictions prevent farmers from selling their meat directly to consumers, making meat prices artificially higher than they need to be. Chicken is a much less expensive protein source than Icelandic lamb.
In addition, the rising value of their currency and trade restrictions with Russia mean less of a market for Iceland’s lamb exports. The government subsidizes more than 40% of the income of sheep farmers. Meanwhile, the number of sheep farms in Iceland has declined from 3,286 in 1993, to 2,785 in 2008. One sheep farmer we met with said the current government is looking to reduce the total number of farms by about 30%, in order to keep the others in business.
Nutrition. Grass-fed lamb has a better than 1:2 ratio of omega 3’s to 6’s, where roasted chicken has a ratio of 1:8. It’s also has twice the iron, 3x zinc, and a 3oz portion of lamb contains 2.2 mcg of B12 compared to chicken which has only 0.3. Lamb is simply superior to chicken, nutritionally speaking. Also, for those looking to cause “least harm,” one lamb can produce a lot more meat than a chicken, and an animal raised outdoors on pasture has a much better life than one raised on 100% grain indoors under artificial lighting for it’s entire life.
Environment. Sheep thrive on Iceland’s pastures and chickens do not. Grain also doesn’t grow well on Iceland’s poor soils. If we remove more sheep from the land, what will happen to the soil? Other than horses and a handful of goats, there really aren’t any ruminants on Iceland. Their grazing stimulates pastures to grow and sheep manure is a natural fertilizer. On a land with limited soil quality, more grazing animals – not less – is the way to go, as long as they’re managed well. Chicken is doing nothing for Iceland’s environment.
Economic. There are serious implications if Iceland loses its small-scale farming economy. Most of their rural communities rely on sheep farming to survive. Reduce the number of sheep farms and those families are not likely to stay in the small towns. Additionally, I feel pretty strongly that countries should be able to produce as much of their own food as possible. What happens when their currency fails and they can’t afford to import their food? Not too long ago, Iceland suffered a major economic crisis. When a country doesn’t know how to produce it’s own food and relies on imports, an incredibly unstable situation can unfold. We’re seeing this play out in Venezuela right now.
Icelanders, you have a beautiful country. You’ve enjoyed great health and longevity from a diet high in animal foods grown on your island and harvested from the sea, but you’re getting sicker, and you’ll lose your farmland and communities if you continue to eat like us Americans. You should be producing more of your own food (using intensive grazing practices), value your farmers and your sheep more than you do. Consider going back to your traditional diet. Please eat more lamb: for your health, for your environment, to sustain your farming communities, and for your resilience.