Arctic Agriculture: Norway’s Ambitious Green Shift

In a bid to tackle climate change head-on, Norway aims to grow the bioeconomy while also slashing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Alstadhaug i kveldssol
A church dating back to 1160 sits beside a field in Nord-Trøndelag, Norway.NIBIO

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND – Declining oil production amid falling prices have left Norway with formidable economic challenges, including budget shortfalls and increasing rates of unemployment. But as Arctic temperatures rise, the Scandinavian country is betting on a potential bright spot – a budding bioeconomy.

Over the next 40 years, climate change could lengthen the agricultural growing season – the number of days with an average temperature of at least 5C (8F) – by up to two months across much of Norway. The agricultural sector aims to take advantage of the global warming consolation prize to help the country transition from an oil-based economy to one rooted in grains, fruits and other crops.

“We can’t continue to burn buried sunshine from millions of years back,” Arne Bardalen, research director at the Norwegian Institute for Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO), told attendees of the Circumpolar Agriculture Meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, earlier this month. “The new economy will build on renewable raw materials where the sun is the source,” he said.

Reports estimate that production from Norway’s marine, forestry and agricultural sectors could increase the bioeconomy from today’s €33 billion (US$36 billion), about 6 percent of the economy, to €110 billion by 2050. On land, that means greater production of both food and renewable energy sources, as well as novel or value-added biomaterials.

The warmer climate could allow farmers to plant novel varieties, grow warm-weather crops further north and harvest several times during the summer. While water scarcity may be a problem in some of the world’s most productive agricultural regions in the future, wetter conditions are predicted for the Arctic.

From Siberia to Canada, farming open fields above 70°N is almost unheard of in most Arctic countries. “But we have the Gulf Stream, which allows us to have farming that far north,” says Bardalen. “Agriculture in the Arctic north will be a more important contributor to food security.”

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Today, almost 90 percent of Norway’s agriculture produces feed for livestock, either as perennial forages, such as clover, for grazing animals, or cereal crops, like oats and rye. But the longer season means that farmers, who have typically had limited crop choice, could diversify. “We can produce more and new sorts of agricultural crops, especially in the northern areas,” says Bardalen. And these products can capitalize on the fact that pesticides are rarely needed, given the lack of pests so far north.

Crow berries grow near lichen-covered rocks in southern Norway, west of Oslo. (NIBIO)

Crow berries grow near lichen-covered rocks in southern Norway, west of Oslo. (NIBIO)

NIBIO researchers are exploring barley, vegetable and berry crops. Fruits and vegetables produced in Norway can have a value-added health appeal – high quality.  Wild-harvested berries, for example, grown under longer day lengths have high levels of antioxidant components called anthocyanins, which can protect against cardiovascular diseases, says NIBIO biologist Laura Jaakola.

While Norway’s farmers should benefit from ample rainfall, one uncertainty, however, is timing. Autumn precipitation might be unpredictable and impact, for example, grain harvest. Too much rain could, at worst, cause the crop to mold, or, at best, make it difficult for farm equipment to extract the grain from soggy fields.

Norway has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. Agriculture currently accounts for 8 percent of Norway’s greenhouse gas emissions. Bardalen says the country can slash agriculture’s carbon footprint by 20 percent, simply by instituting best practices across all farms.

The Norwegian Farmers’ Union has set an even loftier goal of climate-neutral agriculture by 2030. It is an admirable goal, but it is doable, says Bernt Skarstad, chairman of the board of the NFU branch located in Nordland County. In the near-term, farmers should strive for more efficient use of resources, he adds.

The broad list of practices includes: Apply precise amounts of manure and fertilizer to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from overfertilization, drain soggy fields to limit methane production, and increase the amount of carbon stored in soil. Reducing the amount of methane produced by cows, either by feeding them higher quality fodder or breeding low-methane varieties, are longer-term goals.

New mapping of soils in Vestvågøy, Lofoten, shows that many areas have very good soil quality, suitable for potato production. (NIBIO)

New mapping of soils in Vestvågøy, Lofoten, shows that many areas have very good soil quality, suitable for potato production. (NIBIO)

Another way to trim emissions is for Norway to increase domestic production of meat so that the country can reduce imports and transportation-related emissions, says Skarstad. Currently, over half of the meat consumed in Norway is imported. The amount of imported meat doubled to 22,366 tons between 2014 and 2015. In addition, the government plans to encourage citizens to consume less meat.

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A white paper outlining agricultural policy recommendations to meet these goals is expected to reach parliament by the end of this year.

Bardalen is nothing if not optimistic. “Many of these measures offer win-win situations, reducing emissions and improving farmers’ economic performance,” says Bardalen.

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