Iceland Iceland Iceland Iceland


Agriculture and Horticulture Iceland

Agriculture and horticulture in numbers


Agriculture accounts for only a small part of gross domestic production (GDP) in Europe, and it is considered that the overall vulnerability of the European economy to changes that affect agriculture is low (4). However, agriculture is much more important in terms of area occupied (farmland and forest land cover approximately 90 % of the EU's land surface), and rural population and income (5).


Approximately one fifth of the total land area of Iceland is suitable for fodder production and the raising of livestock. Around 6% of this area is cultivated, with the remainder devoted to raising livestock or left undeveloped. Production of meat and dairy products is mainly for domestic consumption. The principal crops have been hay, potatoes and other root vegetables. Cultivation of other crops, such as barley and oats, has increased rapidly in the last 10 years and they are now becoming one of the staples. Vegetables and flowers are mainly cultivated in greenhouses heated with geothermal water and steam (1).

In 1996 fish products accounted for 76% of exports by value while agriculture accounted for only 2% of GDP, and is based mainly on livestock (1). Agriculture produces sufficient meat and dairy products to satisfy domestic demand and is thus very important (3).

Benefits from climate change

Mean annual temperature has risen by ca. 1.2°C compared to what it was on average during the 1961-1990 period, These and other accompanying changes have already had a substantial impact on agriculture and forest growth in Iceland. Long-term studies have shown that a rise in spring temperature by 1°C increases hay production by 11%. Frost heaving frequently damaged hayfields in many parts of Iceland, especially during the cold period in the 1960s-80s, reducing the potential hay production by 20-30% when it happened. This problem has now largely disappeared in the warmer winter climate of the 2000‘s. The warming has therefore already had large impact on traditional agriculture in Iceland (1).

Barley production has increased much in Iceland during the past two decades, both because of research and development within the country and changing climate. The change in climate has also made it possible to grow new crops, such as winter wheat, that is now grown in the country‘s warmest areas in southern Iceland (1).

Under the assumption that in the year 2050 the mean temperature would have increased by 1.5°C in the summertime and 3.0°C over wintertime, and that precipitation would increase by 7.5% in summer and 15% in winter, the production of hay per unit area could significantly increase, up to 64%, partly due to a direct effect of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), but mostly due to longer growing seasons, higher temperatures and less damage by winter frosts. The effects of climate change would be greatest on cereals. The harvest of barley could increase where presently grown and basically all Icelandic lowlands would become suitable for successful barley production (1).

An increase of average summer temperatures by 1.5°C would also open up the possibility of successfully growing many new crops on wider acreage, including oats and wheat, even rye. Harvest of potatoes, turnips, carrots and other vegetables grown outdoors in Iceland today, would increase (1).

The impacts of warmer climate on animal husbandry would mostly be positive. The time available for grazing would increase and the need for sheltering livestock during winters would decrease (1,14).

The impact of climate change on two grass species (timothy and ryegrass) was assessed at several locations in Northern Europe (Iceland, Scandinavia, Baltic countries) in a near-future scenario (2040–2065) compared with the baseline period 1960–1990. This was done for simulations based on a large number of global climate models and the IPCC SRES A1B emission scenario. According to these results potential grass yield will increase throughout the study area, mainly as a result of increased growing temperatures: 14% for irrigated and 11% for non-irrigated conditions. Predicted yield response was largest at western locations. The growing period was predicted to start earlier in 2050 compared with the baseline period. The yield response showed a west-east geoclimatic gradient, with the largest yield responses at locations with a maritime climate in the west and the smallest at inland locations in the east. This gradient was especially evident under non-irrigated conditions due to the generally larger precipitation at the western locations (16).

Higher CO2 concentrations

In the short term, a rising concentration of CO2 can stimulate photosynthesis, leading to increases in biomass production in C3 crops such as wheat, barley, rye, potato and rice (15). The response is much smaller in C4 crops such as maize. These benefits will be particularly pronounced in northern Europe. As climate change advances, however, its negative impacts, such as more frequent winter floods, are likely to outweigh these benefits (12,13).

The world food system in 2080

The world food system in the twenty-first century has been assessed, under various future scenarios of population, economic growth and climate change, addressing the questions: what are the likely impacts of climate change on the world’s agricultural resources? How do climate impacts compare to socioeconomic pressures over this century? Where and how do significant interactions arise? According to the authors, a fully coherent, unified data and modelling system has been used for the first time (15).

For the developed nations under all climate projections an expansion of potential land suitable for crop cultivation in 2080 with respect to 1990 was predicted, mainly in North America (40% increase over the 360 million hectares under current baseline climate); northern Europe (16% increase over current 45 million hectares); Russian Federation (64% increase over 245 million hectares) and in East Asia (10% increase over 150 million hectares) (15).

Model results indicated that agriculture in developed countries as a group would benefit under climate change. Agricultural GDP mostly increases in the Former Soviet Union (up to 23% in scenario A2); while only Western Europe loses agricultural GDP, across all GCM scenarios. Model results indicated decreases in agricultural GDP in most developing regions, with the exception of Latin America (15).

According to these scenarios the developing countries will become more dependent on net cereal imports. Climate change will add to this dependence, increasing net cereal imports of developing regions by 10–40% across GCM climate projections (15).

Vulnerabilities Iceland

Pests and plant diseases would also become more of a problem for outdoor crops in warmer and more humid climate than currently, and the use of pesticides could possibly increase (1).

Vulnerabilities Europe - Climate change not main driver

Socio-economic factors and technological developments

Climate change is only one driver among many that will shape agriculture and rural areas in future decades. Socio-economic factors and technological developments will need to be considered alongside agro-climatic changes to determine future trends in the sector (5).

From research it was concluded that socio-economic assumptions have a much greater effect on the scenario results of future changes in agricultural production and land use then the climate scenarios (6).

The European population is expected to decline by about 8% over the period from 2000 to 2030 (7).

Scenarios on future changes in agriculture largely depend on assumptions about technological development for future agricultural land use in Europe (6). It has been estimated that changes in the productivity of food crops in Europe over the period 1961–1990 were strongest related to technology development and that effects of climate change were relatively small. For the period till 2080 an increase in crop productivity for Europe has been estimated between 25% and 163%, of which between 20% and 143% is due to technological development and 5-20% is due to climate change and CO2 fertilisation. The contribution of climate change just by itself is approximately a minor 1% (8).

Care should be taken, however, in drawing firm conclusions from the apparent lack of sensitivity of agricultural land use to climate change. At the regional scale there are winners and losers (in terms of yield changes), but these tend to cancel each other out when aggregated to the whole of Europe (6).

Future changes in land use

If technology continues to progress at current rates then the area of agricultural land would need to decline substantially. Such declines will not occur if there is a correspondingly large increase in the demand for agricultural goods, or if political decisions are taken either to reduce crop productivity through policies that encourage extensification or to accept widespread overproduction (6).

Cropland and grassland areas (for the production of food and fibre) may decline by as much as 50% of current areas for some scenarios. Such declines in production areas would result in large parts of Europe becoming surplus to the requirement of food and fibre production (6). Over the shorter term (up to 2030) changes in agricultural land area may be small (9).

Although it is difficult to anticipate how this land would be used in the future, it seems that continued urban expansion, recreational areas (such as for horse riding) and forest land use would all be likely to take up at least some of the surplus. Furthermore, whilst the substitution of food production by energy production was considered in these scenarios, surplus land would provide further opportunities for the cultivation of bioenergy crops (6).

Europe is a major producer of biodiesel, accounting for 90% of the total production worldwide (10). In the Biofuels Progress Report (11), it is estimated that in 2020, the total area of arable land required for biofuel production will be between 7.6 million and 18.3 million hectares, equivalent to approximately 8% and 19% respectively of total arable land in 2005.

The agricultural area of Europe has already diminished by about 13% in the 40 years since 1960 (6).

Adaptation strategies - The world food system in 2080

The world food system in the twenty-first century has been assessed, under various future scenarios of population, economic growth and climate change. Results suggest that socioeconomic development over this century will greatly alter production, trade, distribution and consumption of food products worldwide, as a consequence of population growth, economic growth, and diet changes in developing countries. Climate change will additionally modify agricultural activities, probably increasing any gaps between developing and developed countries. Adaptation strategies, both on-farm and via market mechanisms, will be important contributors to limiting the severity of impacts (15).

At the global level simulation results indicate only small percentage changes from the baseline reference case with respect to cereal-production. It is suggested that two levels of adaptation considered in the simulations, i.e. autonomous adaptation at the field level, such as changing of crop calendars and cropping systems as a function of climate; and market adjustments at both regional (re-distribution of capital, labour and land) and global (trade) levels, can successfully combine to reduce otherwise larger negative impacts (15).

Additional climate change pressures may arise, however, by changes in the frequency of extreme precipitation events such as floods and droughts, which may diminish the capacity of countries to adapt, especially in poor tropical regions (15).


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Iceland.

  1. Ministry for the Environment of Iceland (2010)
  3. Ministry for the Environment of Iceland (1996)
  4. EEA (2006), in: EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  5. EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  6. Rounsevell et al. (2005)
  7. UN (2004), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  8. Ewert et al. (2005), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  9. Van Meijl et al. (2006), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  10. JNCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  11. European Commission (2006), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  12. EEA (2004), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  13. IPCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  14. Iglesias et al. (2009)
  15. Fischer et al. (2005)
  16. Hoglind et al. (2013)