Vegan in Iceland
One of the countries where Mowgli will probably never set his paw due to the strict entry requirements for animals is fabled Iceland.
What a country! Epic like the music of Sigur Rós and bizarre like the works of Björk. Lunar landscapes, sparkling turquoise waters, expanse with snow-capped volcanoes in the distance, black bottoms, pale skies, green earth…
Instead of a tour report with a description of the sights that are well documented on the internet, here are some impressions for you:
Yes, we too were in Thingvellir, at the geysers and in the Blue Lagoon – a dear friend and I, who traveled to the volcano and ice country in 2013. Mowgli didn’t even exist back then. I remember feeling lost in the vast volcanic landscape, struggling with dry, cracked lips in that cool Icelandic summer. I remember how cozy our little cottage was, how gorgeous the evening sky looked with the pink clouds piling up, how we watched “101 Dalmatians” in Icelandic on TV and definitely learned the word for “dog” = “hundur” (pronounced “hundur”), how I wished I could go back to Reykjavik one day in winter… Lots of individual impressions and less of a story to tell.
Travel preparation with worries
After many years of a vegetarian diet, at some point I switched to eating vegan and wondered if and how we could satisfy our hunger without having to make compromises. Even without trying the allegedly typical Icelandic specialties such as Hákarl, i.e. fermented (actually rotten) shark, or half sheep’s heads, any form of dead animal, be it fish, cod, lamb or other meat for our diet was completely out of the question, but we wanted to nor live on cheese and skyr.
To our surprise, however, we found out that it was actually quite easy and there is even a vegan scene in Iceland. With the Happy Cow app you are also well equipped to find vegan feeding troughs in the most remote corner of the world.
But why were we so worried just before this trip? Well, a look at the history and the question of what can grow so far north makes you think.
Icelandic agriculture and Icelandic cuisine
In fact, only a small portion of Iceland’s agricultural land is used to grow vegetables and it’s just too cool for many varieties. Potatoes, cabbage and turnips are not a problem.
The fact that massive deforestation took place after the Vikings arrived in 870 and that the Vikings practiced intensive animal husbandry instead of sustainable soil cultivation resulted in the erosion of large areas. For about 100 years, however, efforts have been made to reforest Iceland’s forest and protect the seedlings from the hungry sheep.
And you can find them everywhere. Iceland is said to have more sheep than residents. The pretty, rather small sheep are allowed to roam freely throughout the summer until they are collected again in the autumn and taken to their warm stables. Occasionally we saw them in groups of three standing by the side of the road as if to wave to us.
Fishing plays a crucial role in the Icelandic diet, as does the farming of freshwater fish.
As a child I was fascinated by seafaring tales and also knew all about whales, which I still admire very much to this day. But stories of Icelandic whalers were horror stories for me. Commercial whaling plays little role in Iceland today, after the country accepted the IWC’s whaling ban in 1986.
It’s different with fish. With cod, i.e. dried fish salted by the sea air, you get through the winter.
It is also interesting that there were times when bread and grain in general was a luxury product.
Fruit and vegetables
So while Icelandic cuisine is meat- and fish-based for historically and climatically understandable reasons, it is all the more surprising that bananas are also grown in Iceland, and have been since the 1950s. Greenhouses and Icelandic geothermal heat make it possible. They also research the cultivation of coffee and oranges and produce cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and lettuce in greenhouses. Otherwise fruit and vegetables are mostly imported.
So does it have to be in Iceland of all places to insist on a vegan diet? The question should be asked differently: Is it possible? And it undoubtedly is, albeit (apparently) more difficult than elsewhere. As far as certain problems are concerned, such as the supply of vitamin D3, which, like the important omega-3 fatty acids, is found in abundance in fish, one should bear in mind that both are also supplemented in our latitudes. You can very well use algae oil for this, and that is vegan.
In order not to have to constantly go looking for food, we had rented a summer house and a small jeep, the Suzuki Jimny. It’s really cute, but with its four-wheel drive and ground clearance it was indispensable on the bumpy tracks we were driving. So we picked up the little one and the key to the house at Keflavik airport, drove to Reykjavik and bought everything you could think of in a big health food store that apparently no longer exists (at least I didn’t find it on Happy Cow anymore), everything you have to eat in two weeks and what fits in the mini jeep. Well equipped we continued to Borgarnes, where the cottage should be somewhere nearby. We studied the directions over and over and drove several times down the deeply rutted dirt road that would probably have ruined any normal car, but finally found the cottage only because of friendly people who helped us. After we had lugged all our stuff and countless shopping bags into the house, we enjoyed the silence and the beautiful view of the mountains on the terrace.
Here we felt very comfortable. The owners of the house had lovingly built it themselves, as we can see from the photo documentation in the guest book.
From here we went on our tours inland, to the geysers, to Snæfellsjökull, to Thingvellir, to Gullfoss… and returned to our quiet home base in the evening with great impressions.
We spent the last few days in Reykjavik, took a trip to the Blue Lagoon (a bit expensive, but definitely recommended!), went on a whale watching tour and explored the city. Here we also found a vegan cafe with delicious cakes. Seems a lot has changed since 2013, so check out Happy Cow.
We also visited the shop with the beautiful Icelandic sweaters, which of course we didn’t leave without a loot.
Is wool vegan?
Of course not! Since I am always asked why I wear my beloved Icelandic sweaters made of lopi wool in winter, when I eat vegan, I would like to comment on this at this point.
When I decided to become a vegetarian, it was about avoiding killing living beings. Today we are beyond the question of whether animals have a soul. Anyone who has a dog friend knows that this is the case. Most people who own animals talk to them and their animals respond – in their own way. Nevertheless, the animals, especially the so-called farm animals, are mistreated, tortured and killed, and on a large scale. Our indifference to this fact is a cultural catastrophe, harming not only the animals but also ourselves. In particular, factory farming shows disregard for the sanctity of life.
If you delve deeper into the problem, you become aware that the massive consumption of other animal products, especially dairy products, also contributes significantly to animal suffering. (I’ll skip the health benefits of avoiding dairy at this point.) There is now so much good documentation on this that everyone can find out more. The logical consequence would then be to do without everything that contains animals in any way.
No easy solution
But I don’t think that’s the panacea for the problem. Does it really make sense to forego wool sweaters and instead wear fleece sweaters which release plastic fibers into the water with every wash which in turn are a burden on the environment and wildlife, not to mention that the natural warmth of a wool sweater can not be matched by plastic?
It makes a difference whether humans and animals live together in symbiosis or whether an animal’s purpose in life is to be utilized and exploited. Someone who keeps a few hens and doesn’t hatch all the eggs, but declares some to be breakfast eggs, behaves differently from someone who manages huge laying batteries, with the well-known negative consequences for the individual animal. You don’t have to kill a sheep to give it a short haircut. Nor does one need to injure it, as is customary with shearing in some countries.
When factory farming takes place for profit reasons with life-threatening measures, when wool is produced at dumping prices with animal-friendly methods, when calves generally no longer get their mother’s milk, although they are entitled to it, and are instead separated from their mother, when the cow has to deliver much more milk than she would naturally do, then the vegan way is the answer to avoid becoming an accomplice.
Since I embarked on this path, however, VEGAN seems to have become a fad with no sense of proportion. When the vegan way of life becomes a substitute religion, in which the not quite so orthodox are despised, I find that just as disturbing as the now overflowing range of products with a vegan label, some of which are anything but healthy. For example, if you eat a lot of soy products, you don’t need to be surprised if your thyroid suddenly starts behaving strangely.
The matter is not black or white. It comes down to awareness. Of course I know that sheep are also slaughtered in Iceland. I do not like it. But they can be animals. And as far as I know, a sheep suffers even if it is not shorn. So I advocate taking a close look at the matter and deciding on a case-by-case basis what you support with your purchasing power and what not.
I think we can get further with naturalness, a sense of proportion and common sense than with enemy images.