Longyearbyen, Svalbard is the world’s northernmost town. Although it’s part of Norway, all 46 nations that have signed the Svalbard treaty have rights there. But Longyearbyen is unique for other reasons. For three months of the year, it has sunshine 24 hours a day—followed by another three months of total darkness in winter, when it is a desolate landscape of fjords, snow and ice. Even when the snow melts, it’s just tundra, without a tree in sight—an Arctic desert and, as Benjamin Vidmar knows, a difficult place to grow food.
Vidmar is one of 2,300 people who call this Arctic town home. The chef has lived there for the past 12 years with his wife and four children. The lack of fresh produce inspired him to create the Polar Permaculture Initiative. As he tells The Circle, he’s on a mission to make fresh produce accessible to the community year-round.
What do the landscape and lack of sun mean for growing things in Longyearbyen?
Well, it’s quite easy to grow things in the summer when you have a lot of sun, but it’s quite challenging in the winter, unless you’re using LED lights or something like that. You really have to create a protected environment.
There are a lot of people here who grow vegetables in their houses, just as a hobby. They grow different greens and some cucumbers and tomatoes. But there’s no one really doing anything at a commercial level, selling to the hotels and restaurants or to the supermarket. So, that’s where we’ve been trying to find our place. We want to do this for the town, not just for ourselves.
Where were the residents of Longyearbyen getting their fresh produce before you came along?
Everything was imported. Not only that, but we need to ship all the waste back to the mainland. All materials, whatever is not used, are shipped to Norway. We have a very long supply line and a very high carbon footprint. So, it’s quite challenging to be here.
As a chef, what are the main challenges created by the lack of fresh food?
It makes it very expensive to do business here. It also makes it very difficult to have good-quality food, because a lot of food doesn’t survive the journey over. We have to throw away a lot of produce as soon as it arrives.
For me, the whole idea behind Polar Permaculture was to have the freshest food possible. I was really getting frustrated. I was the head chef at a restaurant here in Longyearbyen, and I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the food.
What have you been growing since you started the Polar Permaculture initiative in 2013?
We’ve been trying to grow as much locally produced food as possible, using soil in the summer and hydroponics indoors in the winter. We’ve also been trying to find a way to compost the waste that’s produced from that food. Because not only can’t we produce much food, but all our organic waste, sewage and wastewater get dumped into the sea. There’s no treatment, no filtering...Whatever comes out of the sewer pipe goes into the sea.
We deliver the produce we’ve grown to hotels and restaurants. We then collect what they don’t use, compost that, and use it in our dome during the summer. We’re trying to create some type of zero-waste circular system—trying not to dump as much into the sea and to reuse things as many times as possible.
What are you able to grow?
So far, we’ve grown lettuce greens and different leafy greens as well as herbs and micro greens. The main thing we grow is microgreens, because along with leafy greens and herbs, they have to be flown in and they don’t transport very well. The hotels and restaurants really like microgreens and use them as garnishes. Right now, we deliver about 15 trays of microgreens per week. What they don’t use during the week, we collect. We have composting worms, so we feed this returned organic waste to them. The worms produce castings, and we use the castings in the dome in the summer to grow things like kale, for example.
What's your vision for the future of this project?
My vision is to produce 50 percent of the green vegetables that we use here in town locally and to compost much of the resulting organic waste instead of dumping it into the sea. I also want to create a green space where people can come and eat dinner—where they can come and visit and see how we’re growing food here. I want to make a space that changes the way we do business here.
We want to show that there’s a different way to do it. We can’t just keep doing the same thing and expect different results.
Benjamin Vidmar’s vision is to grow 50 percent of the green vegetables used locally in Longyearbyen.
We were spending a lot of money and I just wasn’t happy. So I said, you know what, I’m going to grow my own food.
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