The new frontier of fresh foods
By Dave Harrison
March April 2017 – Within a five-minute drive from my home in a medium-size (90,000 residents) city in southwestern Ontario there are three major grocery retailers, a couple of specialty food shops and about 30 restaurants.
Aside from family budgeting limits and my own growing waistband, I don’t have to worry much about concerning the availability of food.
But if I lived in Canada’s North, I would worry about food. A lot. It’s not just the costs, which, in Nunavut for example, are about 140 per cent higher than grocery bills in the rest of the country.
It’s the lack of fresh produce for much of the year. Forget the price tag for a moment, but few veggies will look/taste their best after several days of trucking.
Greenhouses can be part of the solution, a big part. There are some projects already harvesting crops, but more importantly, there is considerable research and development underway.
The International Centre for Northern Governance and Development of the University of Saskatchewan produced an excellent report a few years ago that addressed the potential of northern greenhouses. “Guidelines for Establishing a Northern Greenhouse Project” looked at the challenges and benefits of such initiatives. Among benefits cited in the report were:
- Improved health by consuming more fruits and vegetables.
- Improved access to fresh foods.
- Improved food security/autonomy over food sources.
- Living science lab; great for school programs.
- Opportunity for volunteerism, contributing to individual and community well-being.
- Work and life skills through responsibility of growing and harvest a crop.
Last year, the first Northwest Territories CanGrow Greenhouse Workshop was held at the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, and was organized by the Aurora Research Institute.
Supplying the North is a huge challenge. Of the 72 communities, 45 do not have year-round road access. Self-sufficiency in some foods for as much of the year as is technologically possible, then, is crucial.
One of the more unusual studies is the current “poultryponics” demonstration project underway in Hay River, NWT. It combines poultry production with a vertical hydroponic system. It’s believed to be the first of its kind in the world and will, if successful, provide both fresh vegetables and eggs.
Developing sustainable growing systems for Northern communities will be a major test and a lofty goal for industry technologies.
The federal government launched a northern greenhouse initiative in 2014 through its Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. Ottawa should maintain this leadership role.
Given the impact sustainable food production systems will have on the health and well-being of northern communities, this should be a major goal for the government and an exciting challenge for the research community.