By Dima Kulakov
Extreme heat, record droughts, and massive floods, caused by climate change, present challenges to the ability of the world’s agricultural industry to feed the population of the planet. Additionally, acclaimed research journal NatureFood estimates that a third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from farming.
Researchers and scientists continue to search for solutions in this field. Some experts believe that small-scale farming, seasonal production, and little use of chemicals represent sustainable farming. Others say that industrial greenhouses and “vertical farms” (explained below) can produce more food with a smaller combined environmental impact.
Proponents of small-scale farming promote “regenerative” agriculture, a way of farming that mitigates climate change impacts by building up soil-bound organic matter. Organic matter absorbs carbon dioxide and acts like a sponge, storing water when it rains and preserving moisture during droughts. Fields rich with organic matter need less fertilizer but produce a wide variety of crops as they use a crop rotation system to sustain the soil and prevent erosion.
Industrial farming is traditionally considered opposite to regenerative farming as it requires a lot of chemical inputs and relies on ploughing that break down organic matter. Industrial farmers produce a limited number of crops (usually corn, soy, canola, and wheat in Canada).
Today’s regenerative farmers use modern tools but many experts argue that they can not compete with industrial agriculture in efficiency. For example, most regenerative farms move livestock into lower-density pastures, which makes meat more expensive as production rates decline.
Vertical farms, where “a huge amount of food is produced in buildings that occupy a tiny amount of land, are one of industrial farmings’ innovations. Vertical farms use artificial lighting and carefully designed growth media to produce year-round fruits and veggies for local consumers. Usually, these facilities are located within or next to cities where the producers ship fresh,” says Evan Fraser from the University of Guelph. It is possible that even countries with climates like Canada’s can soon become food secure for fruits and vegetables.
If used properly, vertical farming may be a be a breakthrough for sustainability. Canada depends on importing billions of dollars worth of fresh fruits and vegetables from industrial farms in California and Mexico. These farms cause considerable water pollution (due to use of pesticides) and are also vulnerable to droughts that threaten the long-term supply of imports. The vertical farming industry in Canada could reduce our dependency on food imports and create new jobs for Canadians in the sustainable economy.
To increase sustainability, Canada could also become more opportunistic in producing non-animal proteins – grains “can be converted directly into protein-rich ingredients thus fuelling the explosion of alternative protein products that are already arriving on grocery store shelves.” This would help to both minimize Canada’s carbon footprint and cover some of the deficit in animal-based protein if cattle farming shifts towards a more regenerative model.
It seems prudent to embrace both regenerative and high technology agriculture in Canada. Regenerative agriculture helps make traditional agriculture more sustainable, while vertical farming and other high-tech agricultural technologies bring cost-efficient production of healthy foods year-round, within our urban areas.