March 11, 2022 8 min read
With the world in a climate crisis and our finite amount of natural resources rapidly being depleted, vertical farming presents a unique solution to some of our most serious environmental concerns, offering a chance for our precious lands to recover, while operating with a reduced carbon footprint.
Holistically, soil health is crucial to the health of the planet - over farmed, eroded soil offers little protection against flooding, is low in nutrients and cannot efficiently hold onto water.
In vertical farming, produce is grown stacked, in a controlled, indoor environment without the need for soil. Strategically structured indoor vertical farms serve local communities, dramatically decreasing the distance fresh produce has to travel to reach grocery shelves and ultimately our plates, in fact vertically farmed produce is generally harvested and reaches its destination within a day or two at most.
Vertical farming companies use hydroponics instead of soil to grow plants without the use of fertilizers and chemicals. The plants thrive in nutrient rich water under the glow of data driven LED lights in place of natural sunlight, which are designed to support photosynthesis.
Vertical farming to grow food is relatively new to Canada relative to other parts of the world. Vertical farming companies likeVision Greens in Welland, andLocal Leaf in Kingston and Barrie, are food production trailblazers north of the border where government support and public awareness is lacking compared to their US counterparts.
But as the benefits of vertical farming are catching on, Canada is pledging more support.
A recent article in the The Financial Post shares thatCanada is lagging behind the leaders in this space, including the Netherlands, Israel, and Singapore as well as the United States who have helped grow their domestic indoor agricultural tech sectors using a raft of grants and incentives.However the Canadian government is taking notice - the Financial Post also notes that:
“some big investments into the next generation of vertical farming have been made in Canada, including a $65-million investment in a commercial vertical farming company by French fry empire McCain Foods Ltd.
The Quebec provincial government has also invested in the sector as part of its push to become more self-sufficient in food production, including earmarking $91 million to double the volume of its indoor production of fruit and vegetables.
The federal agriculture department said some support is already provided for indoor farming through several funding programs for the development of agricultural innovation and clean energy technology. Ottawa is also involved in a pilot project that is operating a vertical farm in Nunavut.”
So now we know that there is government interest, let’s examine additional reasons why we the consumer might want to choose vertical farmed products.
Food safety is a valid concern when it comes to our produce, namely reducing or eliminating the risk of potentially deadly contaminants like Listeria and E Coli. Outbreaks likethis one are seriously problematic and potentially deadly. However, vertical farming ensures traceability while decreasing the likelihood of contamination - here’s why.
E-coli outbreaks can be linked back to water pollution, often due to manure used to fertilize crops, which is allowed under organic farming regulations.
In the case of vertical farming and hydroponics, the crops are grown in a controlled environment with very little chance of the water supply becoming contaminated - manure is not used since the plants are not grown in soil.
In the unlikely event of an issue with contamination, the technology collected and used with indoor vertical farming ensures that traceability is strong. Being able to trace and identify a potentially contaminated plant prevents entire crops from being discarded - only a confirmed cases of contamination would need disposal.
Steve Jones, President of Local Leaf Farms Inc shares that his company is able to trace right down to the workers that handled the produce at every step of its journey. Local Leaf has a user friendlymobile app that allows consumers to know the exact origin of their produce and how it was grown including access to information such as the type of seed, where it came from, and when the produce was seeded, harvested, packaged and shipped. As consumers we are then empowered with the invitation to scan the product right on the grocery store shelf and make an educated decision to purchase based on all the factors disclosed.
The vertical farming industry also collects and analyzes data to determine how best to serve their customers and and retailers to suit local demand, which in turn significantly reduces food waste.
Vertical farming technology is used throughout this nascent practice - no only does it support the consumer and the retailers, it also helps track the plant’s growth so that optimal conditions can be created.
As anyone with even a handful of house plants comes to learn, different varietals need different conditions to grow successfully and this remains equally true for edible greens. Collecting data to understand variables like light and temperature will not only support successful growth of greens, but will actually go so far as to impact the taste, texture and flavour nuances of the product.
Local Leaf states on their site that “technology and data is used to continuously optimize and refine our growing practices to improve our yield output and quality”.
Supporters of vertical farming are confident there is simply no comparison between produce grown, harvested and delivered locally and the same varietal travelling from other countries to get to us.
I put this claim to the test thanks to a special delivery from Vision Greens. I will admit lettuce has never been much of a favourite in our home - taste and texture perhaps making it somewhat less desirable than some of its more robust root vegetable colleagues. However, I served these hydroponically grown and locally harvested greens to my family and was pleased to see them become instant hits at the dinner table. In addition I noticed they kept remarkably well in the refrigerator, maintaining freshness well past my expectations. Food waste is one of my personal pet peeves, so I was personally thrilled to note the shelf life of the vertically grown produce was significantly longer than the organic brands that I was used to.
When we considerthe quality of the product, essentially, the more time the produce spends getting to us, the more it loses nutrients and taste. Vertical Farms like Local Leaf and Vision Greens can ship to most of their clients within a day or so, ensuring optimal freshness. When you visit a retailer like Goodness Me and see vertical farmed produce on the shelf you can feel confident knowing that produce was harvested and shipped as recently as possible.
So we’ve talked about increased traceability and lowered chance of contamination with vertical farming vs conventional methods - let’s talk specifically about water.
Not only is the water supply used in vertical farming unlikely to become contaminated, but the efficiency in the way it is used and therefore the sustainability of vertical farming is very strong. Vision Greens and Local Leaf both used recycled water - Vision Greens site explains:
“The recycling of water ensures efficient irrigation with zero wastage of water in contrast to conventional agriculture”.
When crops are grown in soil they need to be continuously watered, but several factors like degraded land and soil erosion as well as climate greatly impact how much water is wasted. If the soil quality is poor it will not be able to hold onto the water. And if the climate is warm then a lot of the water will evaporate. At a time when water has become a precious commodity and both droughts and flooding are an increased concern, conserving and using water in a sustainable way is crucial.
Let’s bring the conversation back to climate, particularly our unforgiving Canadian winter! In Canada we have a very short growing season if we leave ourself at the mercy of mother nature. Because of this we depend on imports from warmer countries so that we can enjoy fresh produce during our frosty months. Vertical farming gives us the opportunity to grow local produce year round in a climate controlled environment where optimal conditions are created to yield the best crops. Food scarcity and supply chain issues like we’ve seen over the past two years are less of a concern when we are able to cultivate our own greens right here in Canada.
Steve Jones of Local Leaf succinctly states:
Despite vertical farming seemingly solving several serious concerns, there is scepticism, criticism and opposition to the practice.
Opponents of vertical farming site various concerns like the amount of hydro used to run the LED lights for example.
Steve Jones explains that the technology continues to advance making the process more energy efficient, while pointing out that from a holistic point of view, the carbon footprint of vertical farming is much lower than conventional operations. Vertical farming produces local produce supporting a small area, and deliveries are made within 24hrs or so vs the environmental impact of crops being shipped from around the globe to get to our grocery store shelves.
Mitch Lyons, Territory Account Manager of Vision Greens agrees:
“We do need to use some additional power to run lighting systems and dehumidifiers. The carbon footprint of this is minimal when you look at where the energy for this comes from. We are strategically located in Welland, where the energy used can come from hydroelectric power. Our farm, therefore, would have a net positive impact on the environment through the avenues of less water, land, and food miles”.
Concerns about automation have also been raised, but Steve Jones puts this to rest by sharing the Local Leaf has no plans to automate - his company hires locally and pays a living wage as well as operating on a BCORP model to support local charities and initiatives. Local Leaf’s contribution to the community is wholly impressive - they have been able to provide food to local charities, including the Salvation Army, the Women’s and Children’s Shelter and the Barrie Food Bank. Their commitment to serving their local communities does not end there:
“in communities like Barrie, (they) have created a 15,000 SqFt (outdoor) community garden and host the largest community fridge in the province. Across all our locations, we are engaging schools to partner on education opportunities, we offer ‘community days’ for the public to visit our farms and we are working with various post-secondary institutions on Research & Development. Our goal is to inspire, educate and engage Canadians, of all ages, around local food and our ability as a country to develop a sustainable, self-sufficient & safe domestic food supply”. -from Local Leaf’s website.
Vision Greens also supports the local economy by hiring locally - Mitch Lyons shares a slightly different take on automation:
Automation helps reduce the cost of the product to the consumer. Canada imports 490 million lbs of lettuce annually. I would suggest that vertical farms in Canada would bring in more full-time jobs to Canadians with clean, temperature controlled working conditions as opposed to working in 30 degree weather in Californian heat. Automation allows for reduction of demand for low skilled workers where the products are imported from and an increase in demand for higher skilled workers to operate and maintain the automation in Canada.
Vision Greens sees the practice as part of the solution:
“Vertical/hydroponic farming in Canada may not be a replacement for traditional farming practises in near term as Canada requires a significant amount of produce every year. Specifically with a lot of produce (greens, herbs, tomatoes, strawberries, green beans, peppers) it will reduce the amount of products we import every year but there are certain things that will always be grown using some sort of traditional farming practises such as corn, wheat, lentils, oats, citrus fruits, and others".
When we look at a reduced carbon footprint, food safety and security as well as supporting local economies and unparalleled taste and freshness, vertical farmed produce certainly makes sense - but don’t necessarily take it from me - look out for Local Leaf & Vision Greens on a shelf near you and let your tastebuds put these hydroponically grown greens to the test!
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