It’s a rainy afternoon in North York, the kind of weather farmers traditionally thrive on. But tradition trumps technology in the field of Jonah Krochmalnek. Basil, cilantro and arugula grow from floor to ceiling in his 5,000 square foot warehouse. Every germ is meticulously managed; two million seeds planted each week, harvested under purple LED lights rather than direct sunlight.
“We control Mother Nature, instead of Mother Nature controlling us,” said Krochmalnek, owner of Living Earth Organic Farm, the largest certified indoor organic farm in Ontario.
Living Earth is a microcosm of the booming vertical farming industry.
Vertical farming is the process of using automated online technology to control and monitor every aspect of the growing cycle. While technology was originally developed by NASA to produce food on cramped interstellar space travel, it is now used here on earth, at a time when our global food supply faces myriad challenges.
The vertical farming software meticulously manages climate, irrigation and LED light luminance to control crop cultivation much more efficiently than outdoor or greenhouse farming, taking the guesswork out of growing.
“The amount of water we use annually is less than five percent of what it would be in a greenhouse,” Krochmalnek told CTV News Toronto.
“In a greenhouse, you have to water several times a day. We water twice a week. Our crop success rate is 99.5% in terms of expected yield versus what we get, every harvest. This makes vertical farming very predictable,” he added.
This predictability is a premium product these days. Severe droughts and forest fires last year caused a $20 million bailout British Columbia farmers. The fallout from extreme weather events and the collapse of the Coquihalla Highway in British Columbia, a vital transportation link for Canada’s food supply, cost the province approximately $400 million in lost economic output.
The constant and controllable nature of technology is increasingly attracting the attention of major players in the grocery and retail world. Two months ago, Walmart has ventured into vertical farmingin partnership with Plenty, a vertical farming startup from San Francisco.
Infarm, an Amsterdam-based vertical farming company that partnered with Sobeys Inc. in 2020, recently announced a $200 million plan to expand its business worldwide.
Beyond climate change, there are many reasons big business is bullish on vertical farming. With the world’s population expected to exceed nine billion by 2050, the the UN concluded global food production will need to increase by 60% to keep pace, straining the planet’s already overstretched freshwater supplies. Around 70% of the planet’s fresh water is already used for agriculture.
In Ontario, urban development removes 175 acres of farmland every day, the equivalent of five family farms a week according to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
Statistics Canada warns that the agriculture sector is facing a looming labor shortage, an unsustainable reliance on foreign workers and a growing number of unfiltered domestic jobs. The labor shortage in the sector is planned to balloon to more than 113,000 people by 2025.
“If we need to produce twice as much food and we’re losing fresh water and agricultural plains, technology has to solve that problem,” says Dave Dinesen, CEO of CubicFarms, a BC-based company that sells vertical farming hardware and software. Each module of the CubicFarms system is capable of producing 1,900 heads of lettuce per week.
“A truck full of salads from California will burn about 5,000 liters of diesel. Depending on which border crossing you are at, it’s 30 to 40 hours. You are literally paying to import compost. At least 25 percent of these things are thrown into the compost. We already use 100% of the fresh water available in the world for farmers. This cannot go on. It needs to change. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that a significant amount of our food is grown in our country? »
The potential for stabilizing and localizing our food supply piqued the interest of Bronwyn Scrivens, an Edmonton-based industrial real estate broker. She would like to see unused commercial properties converted into vertical farms.
“We have an office vacancy rate of 21.22% in Edmonton. In Calgary, we have just over 30% vacancy in our office towers,” Scrivens told CTV News Toronto. “I know it’s a bit of a romantic idea that we can put these vertical farms in office towers and have a kind of more euphoric use of space, but it’s not just a pipe dream. I think it takes a lot of creativity and risk tolerance to get into this because it hasn’t been done a lot.
Dinesen believes the high start-up costs associated with vertical farming technology require the kind of capital and scale only available in rural areas or areas already designated for industrial or agricultural use. But he says it is essential that governments invest heavily in the sector to help alleviate the kind of supermarket shelf shortages that were commonplace at the height of the COVID-19 border backlog.
Despite the enthusiasm shown by some about the industry’s potential, skepticism remains.
“Vertical farming is pretty exclusive in terms of start-up costs and technology costs,” says Sarah Rotz, an assistant professor at York University who studies the ecology of food and land systems. She fears the cost of entry could lead to a monopolization of the global food supply, if vertical farming were to really take off.
“When we think about who is investing in ag tech, ag tech, like vertical farming, you have a lot of people in tech, you have a lot of big investment companies, a lot of Silicon Valley people, you ‘ I now see Amazon, Google, you know, tech companies. We’re already concerned about corporate concentration in tech, so I see something like heavy investment in high-tech farming methods and just doing progress that,” Rotz said.
: This really only serves to reduce demographics, reduce access and further reduce accessibility to food and agricultural production. Agricultural technology really only supports highly specialized forms of labor rather than improving labor equity. So there’s, I think there’s a broader political question, is this the direction we want to go as a society, and who are we going to allow to make those decisions and build those investments? »
“I think a country would be afraid of being too dependent on electricity-dependent agriculture,” said Albert Berry, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s faculty of economics.
“We have enough hackers, that’s the kind of consideration that makes me think he’s not going to dominate, he’s not going to reach 80% (of the agricultural market), it’s much more likely, if everything goes well, to reach 40 to 50 percent,” Berry said. “And then, if the world is a very quiet place, nobody cares about political animosity between countries or the ability of hackers, it could to augment.”
For Krochmalnek, whose past and future are both steeped in vertical farming, widespread adoption is inevitable. As a teenager, he combined his love of gardening with a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit, planting the seeds for a future he believes can sustain and stabilize our food supply.
“Producing enough calories to feed everyone takes a lot of energy, so it won’t replace outdoor farming. But as we get more sustainable energy sources, we can use more and more vertical farms to feed ourselves. It is also a good risk control mechanism for the company. If we depend on imported foods, we run a risk if another country decides not to give us food choices.