At the height of COVID-19, Canada experienced labour shortages, oil price increases and temporary facility shutdowns.
Sixty per cent of Canada’s food was coming from the U.S., but that supply link was no longer reliable. Grocery stores struggled to fill their shelves and more people turned to food banks for help. The supply issue was also brought into focus by extreme weather in B.C. last fall, which disrupted agriculture and the food supply chain.
With so much uncertainty looming, Alex Wilkinson, a sustainable and resilient food systems researcher, has been examining the frailties of the food system and how to strengthen it.
“We need to start thinking about how we can weather the storms in the future,” he said.
Extreme weather events, like the 2021 flooding in B.C., are predicted to be more frequent. Wilkinson and others believe Calgary needs to build a more accessible and resilient food system.
He is now studying how different cities integrate urban gardening, which could help Calgary rely less on imports.
But many indoor growers cannot afford a stall at the farmer’s market, let alone an indoor growing space. And, while a rooftop garden may work in a warmer climate, Calgary needs something to withstand harsh winters and extreme weather projections.
Wilkinson and the sustainability studies research team at the University of Calgary think urban indoor hydroponics could be a solution — and Wilkinson is observing hydroponic projects in the Yukon to see if they could work here.
Kluane Lake Research Station is home to Ag1054, Yukon’s first-ever off-grid, contained hydroponic unit.
Hydroponic crops float on a nutrient-rich water solution. Lights hit the plants with the perfect spectrum for their growing times.
Ag1054 is mostly solar-powered and can grow the same amount of produce as a one-acre farm within the dimensions of a 12×2.4-metre shipping container.
The project is about increasing food security in remote northern communities. Rather than driving more than 200 kilometres to a grocery store, they could grow affordable produce year-round.
Northern communities have great sunlight in the summer, but “in the winter months, when you really want the system going full tilt, they don’t have enough solar energy to fully offset the energy demands,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson visited a hydroponic farm in Whitehorse and found the crop variety limited.
He said the farm grew leafy greens, microgreens and herbs well, but berries were “a bit slower.”
He added that hydroponic systems can be expensive and industrial farming is still more cost-effective.
“The current cost to produce per head of lettuce is higher in a hydroponic system, but [renewable] technologies improve as they come down in price,” he said.
While the industrial food system is more cost-effective, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states industrial farming is responsible for 21 to 37 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
And, with climate change, southern Alberta is vulnerable to more flooding, drought, temperature extremes and hail storms, Wilkinson said.
Water scarcity in the area is predicted to cause the death of vegetation, fish and wildlife, and increase the risk of forest fires.
“The current anthropogenic impacts on our environments are becoming very clear,” Wilkinson said.
Residents of Abbotsford, B.C. have seen first hand the devastating impacts of climate change, and the lack of action to prevent it.
The community was built in a drained lake to create farmland. In the fall of 2021, the area experienced disastrous flooding, which many warned against years earlier.
Meanwhile, interest in food production alternatives grew when the pandemic began, said Kristi Peters, sustainability consultant and food systems planner.
She said every grower needs a traceability program but many do not produce enough to sell to big retailers.
“I’ve seen some indoor growers get set up and then fail because they couldn’t find a solid market,” Peters said.
A stall at the Calgary Farmer’s Market, for example, costs about $1,300 to $1,900 per month.
“If you’re a small grower, sometimes that’s all you make in a month,” Peters said.
While it highlighted the issue, food insecurity was prevalent before COVID-19.
“More than 10 per cent of Canadians were living in food-insecure households. And actually, one in eight children [were] living in food-insecure households,” said Feyza Sahinyazan, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University.
A lot of food is also wasted because of long supply chains.
Sahinyazan said we waste millions of tons of commodities and billions of dollars on the food that’s already been produced.
She added that urban gardens are promising because they shorten the supply chain, but the technology is not up to scale yet.
“Hopefully, with more innovative solutions and more emphasis put on this subject, we can come up with more sustainable cities that can feed themselves up to some point,” she said.