Food Environment in Reykjavik

Essay, 2012
23 Pages



Everyday food must be produced, transported, bought and sold, cooked, eaten and disposed off.

In a city like Reykjavík nearly 600,000 meals are consumed daily. Food is a precious good, possibly the most precious on Earth, and yet the entire food system operates in the most unsustainable way:

19 million hectares of rain forest are lost for arable land every year (Steel 2009); 2/3 of the food production gets eaten by livestock (Steel 2009); 25% of the food produced is used as bio-fuel (Steel 2009); 25% of the developed world’s harvest is wasted (Steel 2009);

40% of the world trade in food is controlled by transnational corporations (Patel 2007);

6 companies controls 70% of the wheat trade (Patel 2007);

25% of all the trucks on UK roads are carrying food (Patel 2007);

30% of Europe´s greenhouse gas emissions come from food production (Stuart 2009);

1 billion people are starving whilst another one are obese (Shiva 2007);

50% of the food produced in the USA worth an estimated 75 billion dollars a year is wasted (Steel 2009);

43 million people are at risk of food poverty in the EU (Stuart 2009);

“Without the energy available to manufacture and ship pesticides and fertilizers, the conventional food system would grind to halt” (Patel 2007, p. 294).

We are “eroding our ability to feed future generations” (Cook 2004, p.4). It is clear that a more efficient food system is needed; a system that respects the environment and is capable of generating high quality, sane and nutritious food, a system that guarantees a fair and equal access to food and a system that celebrates the social and cultural importance of it. Cities play an extremely important role in this, 50% of the world population already lives in them today and this percentage will grow to 75% by 2050 (UN-Habitat 2008, p. 11). Thinking of food means thinking of the environment: nature is all about relationships and we are inextricably part of it.

This essay wants to outline the food systems in Iceland, especially in the urban context of Reykjavík. Following food in the various networks that it travels through, metaphorically and physically, can help illuminate issues within these systems, and allow the city-makers and politicians to address them from a more informed stance.


Iceland is one of the richest (17th highest GDP per capita in the world) and most isolated places on Earth: an island-nation of 103,022 km² located in the North Atlantic Ocean. 93.5% of its 318,432 inhabitants live in cities forming the 9th most urbanised society in the world, at the same time with a density of 3 inhabitants per km² Iceland is the 4th least dense country in the world. In 1901 the rural population counted 60,738 and represented 77.4% of the total population, by the year 1940 it had reduced to 40,228 people representing only the 33.1% of it. Out of this shift Reykjavík is the big winner. Its growth has been explosive: from a village of 38,196 inhabitants in 1940 to a town of 118,061 in 2010. Today two thirds of the population live in the capital region (all data from Statistics Iceland).

Agriculture constitutes 1.4% of the national income; it is applied on a cultivated area of 1,290 km² which is only 1.3% of the surface of the country. This area is subdivided in 3,045 farms. A typical dairy farm has 35 cows whilst a sheep farm has an average of 400 sheep (during the winter). Small and diverse is the nature of the farms and exactly their size makes it difficult to support directly the large supermarket system that needs to rely on big quantity of food independently from the season. So farms do not process their products independently, for instance they do not produce their own cheese, nor can they slaughter their animals at their farms but must send them to one of the 15 slaughterhouses in the country. By doing so the individuality and uniqueness of each farm is lost and above all it is not possible to trace the ingredients back to their origin (all data from Icelandic Farmers Association).

There are eight buying desks in Iceland. Everything that is either produced or imported is selected by them. This is an extremely limited number, “when the number of the companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, this gives them market power both over the people who grow the food and the people who eat it” (Patel 2007, p. 12).

In all the Nordic countries, the number of retail shops has decreased considerably and the food retailing has shifted towards the supermarkets, which today accounts for approximately 80-90 percent of retail sales of food products (Norden 2005). The three biggest chains in Iceland are Hagar, Kaupás and Samkaup; together they own 89% of the market share, and 91% of the market in Reykjavík (Icelandic Competition Authority). Hagar is the biggest with 62% of the market share in Reykjavík. There are 190 food shops in Iceland which equal to 6.6 shops for every 10,000 inhabitants, which is among the highest ration in Europe: the UK ratio is 2.4 and in France it is 2.3 (Norden 2005). Just 1% of the shops has a surface smaller than 99 m², 41% is between 400 and 999 m². Shops are allowed to stay open 24 hours a day, also on Saturdays and Sundays.

Grocery chains - market share


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Reykjavík area:

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(Source: Icelandic Competition Authority)

Icelanders spend 14.3% of their income on food compared to 9.3% in the UK or 14.7% in Italy. Countries like Romania spend more than 35% of their income on food. Of the Western European countries Iceland together with Norway registers the highest food prices (Norden 2005). Food consumption has changed considerably in the last forty years in the country. The amount of soft drinks consumed has grown 638.8% placing Icelanders as the biggest coca cola drinkers in the world after Mexico; fish consumption has dropped 23.7%, meat has increased 30.7% and eggs consumption has increased by 108.3%. 50% of the food consumed is imported (Icelandic Consumer Association). “Food surplus in Iceland is 160 to 170 percent” (Stuart 2009, p. 192) this leads to the fact that 20% of the population suffers from obesity placing the country as number nine in the list of the most obese in the world. At the same time Icelandic men have the highest life expectancy in the world with 80.2 years overall Iceland scores third in the world after Japan and Hong Kong (Statistics Iceland). Finally, Iceland is also the third country in the world per number of vehicles per capita with 657 cars every 1000 inhabitants (after the USA and Luxembourg) (Statistics Iceland).

Icelanders households throw away 23% of the food they buy. From 1995 to 2004 Icelandic population grew 11.8% from 267,806 to 299,404 whilst the waste production grew 28.4% from 301 tons to 488 tons. 70% of all the municipal waste is treated as landfill, 3% incinerated and 26% recycled. Food differentiation is not compulsory (although some citizens make compost), so food ends up in landfill from where methane is then extracted (Waste Management).


Iceland emerges as a country in which food production is controlled by an incredibly few number of people a de facto monopoly condition. A country based on a multitude of small and diverse farms (in rapid numeric decline) that then for legislative reasons cannot access directly the consumers market but have to rely on bigger companies for the production of finite products (like cheese) and buying desk for the distribution of their products. At the moment it is not possible to trace the origin of the products back to its sources. For instance farmers cannot slaughter their own animals at the farm but have to send them in specific slaughter houses, sometimes very far from the farms, (inflicting in this way unnecessary pain on the animals), once animals get out from the abattoir (in forms of cuts) it becomes virtually impossible to recognize their origin. The specificity and diversity of every single farm is then lost.

Icelanders emerge as a long-lived-well-fed-car-oriented-rich-urbanite society with good access to (expensive) food at any time and place and yet at a relative low proportion of income compared to the other European countries. Food distribution is virtually monopolized by one chain: Hagar.

The Food System in Iceland

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In order to comprehend the food system in Reykjavík two different subjects have been examined here: the urban structure of the city and the location and evolution of the grocery stores using Bonus: Hagar´s most successful outlet as a case study.

Urban structure

From 1945 to 1965, the population in the capital area grew by 70% (from 47,000 to 78,000 inhabitants) whilst, the urban area grew 700% (Valsson 2003). From 1965 to 2003, the population of Reykjavík increased by 45%, the road system grew by 148% and the number of bus passenger decreased by 45% while the number of private cars increased by 457% (Bjarnarson 2005, p. 17). Today, of all the movements effectuated in the Reykjavík region 88% take place by car, 4% by public transportation and 8% by walking (Bjarnarson 2005, p. 19). Car ownership increased from 36 cars per 1000 inhabitants in 1945 to 615 in 2003. It also varies geographically amongst the different parts of the city: from 449 in the city centre to 780 in Árbær (a suburban neighbourhood) (Bjarnarson 2005, p. 30).

Reykjavík is a car-city designed for drivers first and pedestrians second. Its urban density of just 436

in/km² places it among the least dense cities in the world (London has a density of 4807 in/km², whilst the more comparable Stavanger in Norway has a density of 1753 in/km²) (Statistics Iceland). Reykjavík´s physical transformation was followed by the grocery stores location´s shift. This has been clearly illustrated by Einar Jónsson and its study on “Location of the Grocery Stores in Reykjavík”.

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Location of the grocery stores in the years 1988, 1998 and 2008. The 300 metres radial circles represent the maximum walking distance for a consumer with shopping bags (Jónsson 2010).

Jónsson highlights a sharp decline in the number of grocery stores -11% from 1988 to 2008 despite the increase in population by 24%. There is also a shift in their location from the central area to the periphery, and an increase in size. Today 54% of the population resides at a walking distance of 300 metres (radial) to a grocery store. This percentage was 84 in 1988 and 74 in 1998. People´s access to food relies more and more on private transportation. These results highlight that an important quality in the planning of Reykjavik is lost: the close contact between food stores and residential areas, the fine granular texture of individual shops (mainly food related) that was at the base of the urbanity of the city has been eroded.

The study of the food environment and built environment is important in relationship with the health of the citizens. In 2010 the paper: “Food Environment, Built Environment, and Women’s BMI: Evidence from Erie County, New York” (Raja et al.) was published. According to it the level of obesity is primarily associated to the type of food environment available within the neighborhood more than on its urban structure (Raja et al., 2010). Therefore “to design healthy communities, planners must integrate the goals of ‘healthy eating’ and ‘active living’ by addressing the shortcomings of both the food and built environments. Instead of just building a sidewalk to facilitate walking, it is important to ask: does the sidewalk lead to a healthful food destination?”(Raja et al. 2010, p. 457).

This is a strong message to the city-makers, it underlines the fact that built form and activities must be thought together. The way we build our city determines, in large extents, our quality of life for a very long period in the future (Peñalosa 2007). “Planning always come with the idea of being comprehensive, future-oriented, public-interest driven, and desirous of enhancing the livability of communities. It is concerned with community systems-such as land use, housing, transportation, the environment, and the economy-and their interconnections” (Pothukuchi and Kaufman 2000, p. 113) yet the food system: “the chain of activities connecting food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management, as well as all the associated regulatory institutions and activities” (Pothukuchi and Kaufman 2000, p. 113), does not occupy a special niche in the planning process, it is managed just as any other good. So what are the consequences of this situation in the urban landscape of Reykjavík?

Supermarket Urbanism

“We can partially trace the contemporary lack of access to food in cities to the processes through which the commoditization of food occurred, which also contributed to human alienation from nature” (Heynen 2006 p. 133).

62% of the food market in Reykjavík is controlled by Hagar (Icelandic Competition Authority). Its most successful outlet is Bonus. By following Bonus´s development, its location and physical design, Reykjavík´s food environment is highlighted. Understanding where and how the food is bought illustrates the relationship between food and the city. Bonus is used not as a scapegoat but as the clearest expression of the food system in Reykjavík.

Bonus chronology

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(Source: Mbl)


Excerpt out of 23 pages


Food Environment in Reykjavik
London School of Economics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
27955 KB
Reykjavik, Food, Supermarket
Quote paper
Massimo Santanicchia (Author), 2012, Food Environment in Reykjavik, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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