Indoor agriculture has potential to spur food manufacturing and feed Canadians
Charlebois said in order for year-round growing to be economically sustainable on a larger scale, Canada needs to not only feed itself, but also continue to export.
Whether it was pandemic-driven supply chain delays, a war in Europe causing grain prices to spike or flooding in British Columbia disrupting rail lines and highways, the past two and a half years have shone a light on how vulnerable Canada’s food system is to climate change and other global factors.
Amid rising food and energy costs and more frequent extreme weather events, experts and sector insiders say the indoor agriculture industry has the potential to feed Canadians more reliably and maybe more sustainably by using greenhouses, vertical farms and hydroponic technology to grow food even in the winter, in remote communities, urban centres and everywhere in between.
“The possibilities are endless,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
Canada is highly self-sustaining when it comes to meat and dairy, but relies heavily on imports for produce, making the country vulnerable to shortages and price fluctuations, according to the findings of a 2021 review article published in scientific journal Agronomy by several University of Guelph researchers and a representative from Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
Meanwhile, Statistics Canada data shows that Canada is growing more and more in greenhouses every year. In 2020, Canada exported more than half of the greenhouse vegetables it grew to the U.S. at a value of $1.4 billion.
Greenhouses have a lot of potential to feed Canadians more than they already do, the researchers said, but face challenges including rising costs, labour shortages, and infectious plant pathogens.
Still, they’re the largest and fastest growing area of Canadian horticulture, with demand for local food on the rise, and technology helping to automate and increase the scale of operations.
Charlebois said in order for year-round growing to be economically sustainable on a larger scale, Canada needs to not only feed itself, but also continue to export, especially to the U.S. as it struggles with climate change’s effect on its agricultural sector.
“If we do this right, from a food autonomy perspective, I could certainly see Canada being a huge supplier of produce to Americans in maybe a decade or two.”
Over the past several years, Canada’s winter production has expanded, said food economist Mike von Massow.
“In fact, because cannabis hasn’t been as much of a panacea as some people thought it might be, we’re seeing some conversion of some greenhouses that were put up for cannabis,” he said.
The Agronomy authors said Canada should ramp up production of commodities it already grows in greenhouses, but also diversify its crops to further promote self-reliance in the Canadian food chain and reach more markets.