2016-11-05

Challenges for Northern Agriculture

end hunger

Food is a fundamental right no matter where someone lives.

The Canadian North has been suffering from a food security crisis and it has been proposed that one of the solutions to this will be the development of northern agriculture in remote, northern communities. However, these communities face unique climatic and economic challenges that make many conventional methods of agricultural production unfeasible. Specifically, they have unusually large heating requirements, very low ambient light levels in the winter, limited space and a high cost of electricity and transportation. As well, the small size of these communities implies that any agricultural method will need to be fully scalable and adaptable to a variety of uses in order to meet their diverse nutritional needs. Therefore, any food production system that is used in the circumpolar north will need to take these challenges into account before they will be able to offer an effective solution that is capable of supporting year-round agriculture.

One agricultural method that is capable of addressing many of these challenge is Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) and indoor farming. Many of these systems are deployed in containers to reduce heat loss and rely on artificial lights to promote productivity and vertical grow units to conserve space. There are a number of recently commercialized systems that are capable of sustaining productivity but most of them suffer from many or all of the following problems:

  • Fixation on plant production: Almost all CEA systems that have been proposed or developed are only capable of producing plants. There is a high market demand for other agricultural products such as meat and eggs that has not been addressed by developments in the CEA industry.
  • Inflexible production system limited to leafy greens: The prolific use of LED lighting systems with limited space for plant height has restricted these systems to the production of leafy greens and only a few types of fruiting vegetables.
  • High energy costs and a reliance on electricity from diesel generators: Most CEA systems proposed for the north have a very high consumption of electricity due to the need to deploy large LED lighting systems and to keep the grow units warm during the cold winter months. In areas where the average cost per kilowatt hour is $0.43, this is not financially sustainable and in communities that must utilize diesel generators, this is not ecologically sustainable.
  • High nutrient costs: All of these systems need to rely exclusively on the resupply of nutrients and other supplies from southern distributors. This is expensive and introduces an element of risk in areas where transportation networks are often unreliable.
  • Complex control systems and inadequate data analytics: New growers will require control systems that are very easy to operate while having access to real-time data analytics to allow them to make valid production decisions and to evaluate the effectiveness of their business and their ability to meet the needs of their respective communities.
end hunger

Climate change is jeopardising many conventional transportation systems throughout the North.