High-tech and local, making B.C.’s food system stronger and more resilient.

Mar. 9, 2022

Author of the article:
Peter Dhillon, Lenore Newman

B.C.’s farmers have faced a year of endless struggle — much of it caused by climate change. Fires and the heat dome devastated crops. And when the rains did come, they brought catastrophic flooding. Consumers haven’t been spared as global supply-chain chaos drives shortages and rampant food price inflation.

Creating a food secure B.C. in such a challenging environment requires new thinking.

Speaking at a conference last week, U.S. undersecretary of agriculture Homer Wilkes told farmers that food security was now a key element of American national security. With declining U.S. farm yields, British Columbians will soon be unable to rely on California imports. Instead, we must feed ourselves — and maybe, if we do it right, we might be able to feed the world as well.

If B.C. is to be a world leader in food security, we need durable, long-term solutions. One strategy is to double-down on advanced agricultural technology (agritech for short) to produce more food locally and year-round. The provincial government took two important steps to promote this strategy this week. First, they created an Agritech Centre of Excellence that will focus on developing made-in-B.C. agritech solutions in partnership with university researchers and industry stakeholders. The second announcement clarified the regulation of controlled-environment farming, such as vertical farms that produce crops indoors year-round, on agricultural land.

These changes are overdue and potentially game-changing. B.C. is well-suited for indoor fruit and vegetable production. The province has abundant green electricity, an excellent technology ecosystem with a talented workforce, a robust research and development landscape, and a public that is concerned with both food security and healthy eating. B.C. is home to world-leading agritech companies such as Cubic Farms, Nutriva group, Terramera and many others.

The need for these welcome changes is pressing and immediate. B.C. imports 70 per cent of its vegetables from California — about $2 billion worth of produce each year. But California’s field production is water- and labour-intensive, and their crops are threatened by climate change. What’s worse, California is likely to lose over a million acres of production due to drought and changing climate. This will choke North America’s already wasteful system. It takes up to eight days to move produce from California to B.C., and once these tired crops arrive, up to 30 per cent are immediately thrown away. As climate chaos settles in, will we be able to rely on the Southwestern U.S. for our fruits and veggies?

Supporting indoor farming in B.C. will allow us to replace imports with local products that will be sold on the same day as they’re harvested. This will keep billions of dollars (and hundreds of jobs) in the province. Investing in indoor systems such as vertical farms and greenhouses means we will not only enjoy fresh local food year-round, but we will also do it without pesticides or herbicides.

The two agritech announcements this week were as significant as the NDP’s earlier decision to ban monster homes on farmland. But B.C. has more to do. Modernizing the rules governing food production in the Agricultural Land Reserve is an essential task. One half of all private land in the Lower Mainland has been set aside for farming as part of the ALR — yet only half of this land is currently being used for any sort of agricultural production. The goal must be to use it all for food production. We can increase the yield on our treasured ALR by situating agritech on our least-arable soils and continuing traditional farming on our best soils.

Food security comes from a robust food chain that runs from field to table. This means we must not only produce food, but also process, package and distribute local food before it goes to the consumer. B.C.’s Food Security Task Force heard this message loud and clear: B.C.’s food processors are in crisis. They’re struggling to find suitable land for their crucial activities, as the processing allowed on the ALR is governed by obsolete rules that don’t reflect modern processing practices. This needs to be addressed while respecting and preserving B.C.’s best soils.

Globally, agritech is booming as more and more regions focus on the ability to produce local food year-round, thus boosting the resilience of their food supply chains. In the Netherlands, agriculture is one of a series of “top sectors” that receive extra government investment, with specialized collaboration between government, academics and industry. This focus is so effective that they have become the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world even though their weather is poor, and they have a tiny land base. Singapore has a goal of producing 30 per cent of their food locally by 2030, and is aggressively funding indoor agriculture, aquaponics and other advanced technologies.

Global competition to lead the food revolution is fierce, but these changes open the door for B.C. to become the “Netherlands of North America.” We now have the ability to feed ourselves and feed the world. Creating the ALR was one of the smartest moves that our province ever made. It’s now our secret weapon in offsetting the ravages of climate change and employing innovation and technology to provide food security for future generations.