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How Iceland's Delicious Yogurt Is Endangering Its Rare Cows

Due to increased global consumption of skyr, some producers are thinking of importing Norwegian Red cattle and crossbreeding them with Icelandic varieties.
Photo via Flickr user stseger

Forget the Übermensch. In the doubtlessly dystopic future, it won't be immaculately sculpted Aryans that we will venerate as examples of genetic superiority, but badass bovines sporting mohawks and just enough ennui and moody backlighting to give the fika-frenzied specter of Stieg Larsson an existential crisis.

At least that's where my mind almost instantaneously went after hearing about one possible solution to Iceland's dire skyr deficiency.

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Were you not aware that the Nordic island nation was currently facing a milk-shortage of epic-proportion due to increased global consumption of skyr? Well, neither was I. At least not until recently. BTW, somebody needs to let James Franco know about this shit. Just saying, Milk 2: Rumble in Reykjavik. It could be totally be like those Ernest Goes To… movies, but with 100-percent more re-animated LGBT activists.

Anyway, it's true. Skyr as you know it, may soon be a thing of the past.

Skyr, of course, is the ultra-rich yogurt produced in Iceland—the one that makes Greek yogurt look like a watered-down imposter. Fans of the ancient Icelandic yogurt are legion. After all, the stuff is high in protein, low in fat, and has almost no naturally occurring sugar. It's pretty much the perfect food.

READ: Iceland, I Love You, But Your Grocery Stores Are Weird

To make the real stuff—unadulterated skyr—you need a special cow and a lot of its milk. About four cups of milk from a special breed of Icelandic cow yields one measly cup of skyr.

But the poor cows can't keep up.

Icelandic farmers are facing a conundrum. Do they crossbreed the purebred Icelandic cattle that have populated Iceland's dairies for more than 1,000 years? Because of its geographic isolation, Iceland has cows that are more purebred than Westminster's poodles. But that may all change.

Some skyr producers are thinking of importing Norwegian Red cattle and crossbreeding them with Icelandic varieties. Norwegian Reds, you see, can produce more milk than those rarified Icelandic Elsies.

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According to a report by NPR, Þorgrímur Einar Guðbjartsson, a farmer in Iceland who runs the Erpsstsðir dairy on the Snæfellsnes peninsula—I'm pretty sure I just had a stroke after typing all those names—is not in favor of crossbreeding or replacing the true Icelandic cattle with Norwegian interlopers. He, for one, is afraid Iceland "might lose the old breed."

As Emma Eyþórsdóttir, an associate professor of animal sciences at the Agricultural University of Iceland, told NPR, "Some farmers are not interested. Others are very much interested" in importing more productive foreign animals.

The problems in Iceland, as far as food goes, are mounting. We recently told you about another problem Iceland was facing thanks to rising demand for skyr internationally: Acid whey—a by-product of skyr-making—may be polluting Iceland's pristine rivers. Add this to last month's nationwide strike of veterinarians in Iceland, which was the impetus behind our story about how Iceland was running out of meat, and the idyllic island nation is looking less remote and Frozen-perfect and more like the rest of the world—i.e., riddled with problems.

But this latest Iceland quandary—the dearth of milk for skyr—raises this important question: will skyr be the same if produced by a half-Norwegian hybrid?

Guðbjartsson doesn't think so. He uses a 100-year old yogurt starter and mixes his skyr by hand. He also worries that the Icelandic cows will become a thing of the past if we all start calling our local Whole Foods to complain that we can't find our skyr.

"I want to take care of this special and rare breed," he says, adding that there are fewer than 25,000 such cows in the world. The Icelandic cow "needs to be preserved."

Icelandic bovine hegemony and globalization aside, maybe we all need put down our skyr and smell the roses as we eat a good ol' pulled Björk sandwich. After all, who needs probiotics when you have singer-songwriter puns?