Schoepp: Technology can be used to create new opportunities in Canadian agriculture

We can not only grow more veggies and fruits here, but also create new value-added sectors

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Canada’s food guide encourages putting fruits and vegetables at the centre of the plate.

But to do this the nation is heavily dependent on imports, particularly from California.

In 2019, Canada imported US$4.3 billion of vegetables, fruits and nuts from California. In total, Canada imports nearly US$6 billion in fruits and US$4 billion in vegetables each year.

Can we offset this trade with homegrown solutions?

Although there is no shortage of innovation in terms of ways to produce food that requires a lot of heat and water, there is a high energy footprint in cooler climates. We can grow plants without soil as there are many other mediums now taking root both in natural form such as wood, rice and sugar waste or with synthetic mediums such as pumice and perlite (although these do not have nutritional qualities). LED lighting has taken the place of natural sunlight and has proven effective around the world.

What cannot be replaced is water and heat.

Canada is rich in water and by recycling water in the growing process and reducing evaporation, there is an opportunity to grow more for less. However, sun-loving plants such as tomatoes use a lot of water. It takes 50 litres of water to grow a kilogram of tomatoes in the irrigated field and 40 litres of water to grow a kilogram in a greenhouse. Greenhouses also offer the opportunity for biological pest control, rainwater capture, water recycling, and the capture and reuse of carbon.

Why then do we not switch from fields to greenhouse floors for fruit or vegetable production?

For one, the volume required is so great and the types of vegetables or fruit grown indoors is still limited compared to those grown in soil and in rotation. But there is certainly opportunity to grow year-round fruits and vegetables, and this is being done even with favourites such as strawberries. The majority of Canada’s strawberries are grown in southern Quebec (followed by Ontario, B.C. and Nova Scotia) and are day neutral (meaning they are not seasonal and produce over a longer period of time).

Introducing a robust strawberry industry on the Prairies would require the heat units enjoyed by the warmer climates of the current domestic growers. Taking the berry inside allows for an extension of the season and biological control. Interestingly, it is the cooler climate that also is helpful in early pest control. Perhaps what is needed is a berry developed for cooler temperatures.

In 2019, Quebec had more than 42,000 hectares of fruit production while Alberta grew fruits on 718 hectares. As for vegetables, Ontario leads the way with more than 48,000 hectares of a variety of veggies while in comparison Alberta had 3,591 hectares in 2019. Together, Quebec, Ontario and B.C. amounted for 92 per cent of all domestic vegetable production.

Is this an opportunity?

Imports of radish alone are worth nearly US$19 million and radish can be grown year round indoors.

Technology is the answer when it comes to expanding the potential in fruits and vegetables.

Regional governments in collaboration with industry can take the lead on the further development of the growing industry. Thermal heat; robotics; biological control; vertical spaces; water capture, control and recycle, sensors, scanners; electronic sorting; control apps; genomics; symbiosis; geo mapping; predictive analytics; species integration; hydroponics; and nutrient profiling — to name a few — are all available and affordable to growers. As the current generation of farmers is tech savvy — these are understandable and employable options.

The big gap is in the processing of fruits and vegetables.

Canada has the lowest food-processing cost in the G7 group of nations, and local, regional and national growth opportunities abound in value adding. Highly technical and innovation solutions are required, as is investment and motivated disruptors. If that sounds like you – your ship has come in.

Considering the current shortage of shipping containers for commodities and the pressure on transportation infrastructure, it makes sense to process fruits and vegetables before selling into the domestic or international markets.

Agriculture and agri-food in Canada are diverse, exciting and ripe for expansion in all industries, including fruits and vegetables. Setting a goal of increasing domestic fruits and vegetables for the centre of the plate complements manufacturing.

With innovative technology the regional lines are diminished and risk is mitigated even in the harshest of climates.

As one of the most technically advanced industrial countries in the world, surely Canada can attract new people, investment and technology along with supportive enabling policy, and build an infrastructure that supports the production and processing of a variety of fruits and vegetables.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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