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opinion

A volunteer sorts food items in the receiving area of the warehouse at the Ottawa Food Bank in Ottawa, on April 23, 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Dave Dinesen is the chief executive officer of CubicFarms, an agricultural technology company specializing in automated, commercial-scale indoor farming technology.

As I navigated the aisles of a Vancouver grocery store this winter, the arrows on the floor kept leading me past bare shelves where heads of lettuce, bundles of kale and packages of strawberries used to be. The shortage of fresh produce took me by surprise – wow, this is happening here – but in hindsight it shouldn’t have.

The combination of COVID-19 and climate change brought disruption to our overextended supply chains last year. But the reality is that food insecurity isn’t a new challenge in Canada. Even before COVID-19, 1.2 million Canadian households didn’t have reliable access to healthy food. Fresh foods are especially challenging, with a recent Lancet report noting the average Canadian is being priced out of access to a nutritious diet. The past year proved that any number of uncontrolled events could knock out a significant chunk of our food supply or push prices out of reach.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canada is in a position to lead a sustainable revolution in food security. The solution? We must grow what we eat, where we live.

Picture a head of lettuce from California on a shelf in Toronto. It probably travelled more than 4,000 kilometres, and by the time it reaches a customer’s fridge, it will be rotten in a few short days. Studies have shown that up to 40 per cent of food is lost on the journey from farm to fork. Indeed, food is the single largest wasted item in the country, making up 28 per cent of all garbage that ends up in municipal landfills.

This is how we do it in Canada. We’re a net importer of fruits and vegetables. Check the stickers on your food at the grocery store and you’ll see the United States as often as you’ll see Canada. You’ll see Mexico, China, Peru, Spain and the list goes on.

These long chains have brought us the ability to eat fresh fruit and vegetables year-round. But the reality is they’re riddled with weak links. A number of recent events – such as a pandemic, historic storms and a gigantic ship getting stuck in a tiny canal – showed how powerless we can be if we rely heavily on global imports.

The alternative is not new. It’s local supply chains. If we support our farmers in building sustainable food hubs throughout the country, goods will travel shorter distances to reach people where they need them. Thankfully, shifting consumer habits and accelerating agricultural innovations make growing local an increasingly real and affordable possibility – yes, even in Canada.

Demand for local foods has perhaps never been higher. An Ipsos poll revealed that eight in 10 Canadians agree it’s important to ask where their food is coming from. A recent study by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax showed more than half of respondents would pay more for local vegetables than ones imported from another country.

Meanwhile, an agricultural revolution is under way to localize growing. The same technologies transforming how we work and play are also changing the way we farm. This is unleashing more efficient ways to grow, close to home. We’re using drones to monitor crops, artificial intelligence to optimize irrigation, and smart machines to work fields.

But nothing is more important to Canada than indoor farming. By this I don’t just mean greenhouses or even vertical, warehouse farms, but nimble technology that can be installed anywhere. I’ve seen this close up. My company worked with a farm outside Calgary, allowing it to add 23 indoor growing modules to grow 365 days a year, without the use of pesticides and with minimal water and energy consumption. Plus, the farm can shift crops quickly to keep up with changing consumer demand.

When I say “food hubs,” this is what I’m talking about. There can be commercial farms within driving distance of Canadians all year long. Advances in technology and reductions in waste mean prices for produce grown indoors are fast approaching parity with field-grown goods.

So what’s standing in the way?

It’s not farmers. Innovation is always disruptive, but I’ve found farmers keen adopters. Canadian farmers were using robots to milk cows before most people had desktop computers.

But farmers don’t take risks or evolve in a vacuum. They respond to the market. That means consumers like you and me have to insist on local produce. Ask the question – in stores, in restaurants – where does this come from? How people spend their money will be the biggest driver of agtech in the not-so-distant future.

Above all, we need a firm buy-in from our governments. Innovation is often driven by incentives – such as putting solar panels on roofs or electric cars in driveways – but we need more emphasis on growing the solutions developed here at home. If there was an incentive for Canadian retailers or restaurants to buy from local growers, they would adapt quickly to save money.

Indoor growing technology is both a complement to traditional field farming, and a solution for areas where farms are sparse. We are at a unique moment when Canada can use this technology not simply to feed itself but to export agricultural innovation around the world.

The global population will reach 10 billion people by 2050. It’s estimated we need 56 per cent more food production to meet demand, while reducing greenhouse gases to stave off the devastation of climate change. Food insecurity at home is already an issue felt by one in seven Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a challenge that is not going away and one that demands a solution.

Canadian innovators can be the ones to provide it.

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