Inside View: March 2012

March 21, 2012
Written by Gary Jones
Agriculture (including horticulture) and the agri-food system (farm input and service supplier industries, primary agriculture, food and beverage processing, food distribution, retail, wholesale and foodservice industries) continues to play an important role in federal and provincial economies, contributing 8.2 per cent to total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and (in 2009) providing one in eight jobs (two million people).1

 Total government (federal and provincial) support to the sector reached an estimated $8.4 billion in 2009-10, or 34 per cent of total sector GDP. Program payments accounted for the largest portion of all government expenditures in support of the sector, followed by spending on research and inspection. As a percentage of agriculture and agri-food GDP, farmers in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba received the most government support.1 But government funding is channelled through a number of other ways, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) lists some 180 different federal and provincial funding programs on its website.2

Fortunately, not all government funding is via “program support payments.” Spending in support of public research and development in agriculture and agri-food is important for the innovation and competitiveness of the sector and has been increasing over the past few years.1

 Against this background, I was reading a chapter titled “In Praise of Technology” in Peter Ladner’s new book, The Urban Food Revolution.3 He describes some of the significant contributions (the plow, the greenhouse, use of landfill methane for greenhouse heating and high-efficiency lighting developments, as a few examples) that technology has made to providing safe, affordable food to society, and some of the new areas that are being developed to continue this service to mankind.

While not suggesting that all new technology is automatically beneficial (he singles out genetically modified seeds), Ladner looks at how entrepreneurs are trying to find ways to produce more food from less land. Starting with (now) “conventional” hydroponic glasshouses, he moves on to describe some of the many developing systems of vertical greenhouses appearing around the globe. His examples include:
  • Will Allen’s five storey “Growing Power” vertical building in Milwaukee.
  • Anna Edey’s solar (and, yes really, rabbit!) heated “Solviva” greenhouse in Massachusetts.
  • Valcent Products Inc.’s “Verticrop” carousel system at Paignton Zoo in the U.K.
  • Nick Brusatore’s “Terrasphere” lettuce system supplying Choices Markets stores in Metro Vancouver.

These, and many others, are great examples of “less (land) is more (productive)” thinking.

Most claim to save water (using only five per cent of the water needs of field crops, for example); reduce carbon pollution (by reducing food-miles); create jobs (construction and management); and build local food security (by being less dependent on food imports).

But most ignore their ecological footprint in terms of the energy required to construct and maintain these high-tech structures. Nonetheless, they are trying to solve the problem of feeding the soon-to-be 10 billion mouths, and many can be located practically anywhere in the world. But that’s another story.

And then, of course, there is always the problem of money. How do entrepreneurs fund such work?

Ladner suggests that “investors from the green tech world are just waking up to the financial opportunities.” He quotes venture capitalist Paul Matteucci as saying that “historically, we have not seen a ton of entrepreneurial activity in agriculture, but we are beginning to see it now and the opportunities are huge.” (If the plow and development of greenhouses are not entrepreneurial, I don’t know what is!)

So perhaps we are looking in the wrong places for agriculture support funding? Perhaps horticulturists (who in my mind at least are some of the most entrepreneurial of businessmen) should be seeking money in the technology sector, rather than the techie guys coming and competing for our agricultural money?

Take a few minutes to search the web for examples of new ways of growing in greenhouses. You’ll find lots of examples. But who is behind those new developments? Is it growers? Or is it engineers, biochemists, energy providers, town planners or the early-adopter marijuana grower?

Perhaps you’ll come to the same conclusion as Home Town Farms. Having described their system of “vertical organic urban farming,” they conclude that “the time to invest in our food future is now.”

  1. “An Overview of the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food System 2011,” http://www4.agr.gc.ca/AAFC-AAC/display-afficher.do?id=1295963199087&lang=eng
  2. http://www4.agr.gc.ca/AAFC-AAC/display-afficher.do?id=1204214137015&lang=eng
  3. Ladner, Peter (2011), The Urban Food Revolution – Changing the Way We Feed our Cities. New Society Publishers, B.C., pp. 292.


Gary Jones is chair of production horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and would welcome comments at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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