Food supply chains are in crisis. Could these futuristic farms fix that? – National
The first time Cesar Cappa stepped foot on the farm, he thought he was on another planet.
He grew up on a small family farm in Argentina. But this facility, located just outside of Guelph, Ont., was unlike anything he had ever seen.
“I thought I was on Mars. It’s incredible,” he says. “You don’t realize the magnitude of something like this, a project like this, until you see it with your own eyes.”
Towers of large metal trays, full of leafy greens, are stacked on top of each other in a large warehouse bathed in a bright fuchsia light. There’s an earthy scent in the air and the room is ever so slightly humid.
Indeed, if humans were to inhabit the moon or Mars someday, GoodLeaf Farms’ facility is a blueprint of how produce could be grown. The 45,000-square-foot facility is the largest vertical farm in Canada. GoodLeaf grows baby lettuce, spinach, arugula and an assortment of microgreens using the latest agricultural technology.
If greenhouses are the suburbs of farming, then vertical farms are the condos. By stacking layers of crops, growers can produce a great deal of food even where real estate is scarce and the weather isn’t agreeable. LED lights replace the sun and the plants receive nutrients through recycled water rather than soil.
Every aspect of this environment is controlled and optimized for growth, from the hue of the lights to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. The result is astounding: higher crop yields that require less space and 95 per cent less water than a traditional farm. And there’s no need for pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
Cappa is the head grower at GoodLeaf Farms. He studies how the crops interact with their manufactured environment in order to make the system more efficient. While giving me a tour of the facility, Cappa says it’s technically possible to grow a variety of produce in these conditions. But so far, leafy greens are what the company has perfected — and what’s profitable. This single facility provides roughly 70,000 pounds of leafy greens to grocery stores across southern Ontario each month.
“I really think we’re making a difference in terms of food security for Canada,” Cappa says. “This is pretty much the only way to grow produce year-round.”
Canada currently imports most of its leafy greens from California. But labour shortages and an unprecedented drought have led to supply chain disruptions over the last two years, exposing how precarious it is to rely exclusively on produce from abroad.
“By the time we get lettuce in Vancouver, it’s already travelled for eight days and its shelf life is really only about 10 days,” says Lenore Newman, the director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“So when it comes into the distributor, they usually throw away a third to 40 per cent of what they bought. And when you take what’s left home, you’ve only got a couple of days to make a salad, max.”
More than $18 billion of food is wasted each year in Canada at this stage of the food cycle. That food ends up in landfill, where it releases tonnes of methane gas — a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful at trapping heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide — as it decomposes.
“So you take a look at all of those elements and you say, is there an alternative? Is there a better way?” says Barry Murchie, the CEO of GoodLeaf Farms. “This is an example of how technology and agriculture have merged to create an alternative that is really better in every element.”
Vertical farms have become a solution to many of the issues plaguing traditional outdoor farming. They are impervious to the effects of climate change, occupy less land, use fewer resources, grow produce faster, and cut out long-haul transportation and fertilization emissions. These farms are also scalable, meaning they can be as big or small as the community they serve.
Commercial vertical farms have started popping up near many of Canada’s major cities. In Quebec, producers are growing strawberries and mushrooms indoors. In B.C., urban vertical farms have focused on herbs and microgreens. GoodLeaf is expanding, too — two new facilities are underway in Montreal and Calgary.
“With all of the benefits attached to vertical farming and really no downside, it’s only going to continue to get bigger and expand,” says Murchie. His goal is to build a national network of vertical farms across Canada.
This technology is also being used in rural and remote areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive or unavailable.
In 2016, Opaskwayak Cree First Nation in northern Manitoba began operations at their vertical farm. The facility, which was made possible through partnerships with the federal government and the University of Manitoba, provides fresh vegetables to its 6,420 members, year-round.
With all these benefits, you might wonder why we don’t just grow everything this way. There is a catch: these farms require a lot of electricity. How sustainable these farms are depends, in part, on where that power comes from.
GoodLeaf sources its energy through the Ontario power grid, which uses a mix of natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectricity, wind and solar. The company estimates its carbon footprint is half that of a traditional farm. Its Guelph facility, though, does use peat as its substrate, which is a natural carbon sponge many people want left in the ground. It is composted and upcycled into landscaping material after use.
As LED technology improves and brings down energy costs, Newman says she anticipates more farmers moving their crops indoors, especially as they contend with the more severe weather to come.
“During the heat dome (in 2021), it was 39 degrees on my front porch in Vancouver … and I was getting reports of fruit actually cooking on the vine,” Newman says. “We had massive crop loss due to that and then, we had flooding. We’re really seeing people say, well, what can we do?”
With the world’s population expected to climb to 10 billion by 2050, we will need to produce more food while confronting climate change. The United Nations estimates that food production will need to increase by 70 per cent to meet increasing food demand.
Nearly 40 per cent of the earth’s land surface is already used for agriculture. Of that, about one-third is cropland, while the remaining two-thirds is used for grazing livestock.
“The animal protein sector is one of the urgent issues facing humanity,” says Newman. “We know demand for protein is rising rapidly. We can’t scale animal agriculture to make it any bigger.”
The greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the cultivation of animals for food, as well as livestock feed, are twice that of plant-based food production, according to a 2021 study. Beef and cow milk production are the worst culprits, contributing 25 per cent and 10 per cent of emissions, respectively.
As the granddaughter of proud dairy farmers, even this writer found that statistic a hard pill to swallow.
I grew up drinking a glass of milk at breakfast and dinner — something my mother still enjoys. I revere my grandparents for their hard work; my grandfather and grandmother would go up to the barn at 5:00 each morning to milk the cows, returning after 8:00 most evenings.
Farming is in my blood, but it’s difficult to square this part of my identity with my environmental bent and affinity for animals. Many people experience a similar quandary; almost half of Canadians are concerned about the environmental impacts of animal consumption, according to a recent survey, but the vast majority of Canadians continue to eat meat. (In recent years, though, there has been more of a general effort to reduce meat consumption.)
There’s a name for this cognitive dissonance: the meat paradox. Author Rob Percival, who wrote a book by the same name, says our society’s relationship with the animals we consume is fundamentally broken.
“The split between what we say we believe and the values we hold and what we do is becoming increasingly apparent,” Percival says. “We’re very detached from what goes on and wrapped up in all these psychological strategies of evasion and denial.”
This tension is becoming more pronounced, he argues, due to the worsening climate crisis and the growing availability of plant-based alternatives that make a vegetarian or vegan diet more attainable.
But for those who simply don’t want to give up meat, scientists are working hard on an ethical and sustainable alternative. In highly secretive labs across the Bay Area in the U.S., various biotech companies are growing poultry, beef, seafood and dairy products from cells.
One such company is Wildtype, a cell-based seafood company producing a very convincing replacement for wild Pacific salmon.
In its San Francisco-based facility, microscopic salmon cells harvested from a fish are grown into a perfectly rectangular sushi-grade filet ready for consumption. Wildtype co-founder Aryé Elfenbein first worked with stem cells as a cardiologist. Then on a visit to Australia, where he grew up, he watched as cattle grazed where a lush rainforest once was and got to thinking: “Do we need animals to have meat? Could we just create what we consume just outside of the animal?”
The question propelled him and his business partner, Justin Kolbeck, into the emerging field of cellular agriculture. The pair decided to focus on salmon because it is the most consumed finfish in the U.S., and Elfenbein says, it was also a way for them to give back to “their hometown fish.”
Wild salmon stocks along the West Coast have been struggling for decades due to overfishing and the destruction of natural habitats. Elfenbein hopes that Wildtype salmon will take some pressure off wild fisheries and help them replenish.
There are other benefits too. Wildtype salmon is free of mercury, microplastics and other contaminants commonly found in seafood and it takes only four to six weeks to grow a filet. In comparison, farmed salmon takes about three years to go from egg to harvest.
“There have just been more and more of these realizations that our current method of production is not just unsustainable, but also deleterious for our environment and also for our own personal health,” says Elfenbein.
The biggest hurdle for Wildtype and other cellular agriculture companies now is scaling up production to a commercial level. For that, cells need to be grown in bioreactors — large brewery-style tanks — where they can multiply at high densities and volumes. In order to mimic the shape of a filet you might find at a fish market, Wildtype uses a rectangular scaffold that the cells grow into.
It’s a complex and costly process, but Wildtype is forging ahead, building a larger production facility as it awaits regulatory approval, which could come as soon as this year in the U.S.
“We’ve made an enormous amount of progress in terms of coming down that cost curve,” says Elfenbein. “Our mission is one of greater accessibility. That’s not one that we can reach if we are just selling expensive salmon.”
When Wildtype was in the prototype stage, a small serving of sushi-grade salmon cost thousands of dollars to produce, but today, the company says it only costs US$25 to make two pieces of salmon nigiri.
Lab-grown protein, or cultured meat, is still a very new technology. It was just in 2013 that the world was first introduced to the first lab-grown burger to much fanfare. It cost US$330,000 to make and was eaten in a matter of minutes.
In the nine years since, the industry has made leaps and bounds forward, but it is still missing what David Kaplan calls “a strong scientific foundation.”
Kaplan is a professor at Tufts University and one of the leading researchers into cellular agriculture. At his lab in Boston, he is working to answer the many questions regulators have, including: What is the best nutrient-rich medium to feed the cells? How nutritious is cultured meat compared with traditional meat? How do you produce these products at scale in a cost-effective and sustainable way?
These unanswered questions haven’t scared off investors, though. Cultured meat and seafood companies secured US$1.4 billion in investments in 2021 — the most capital raised in any single year in the industry’s history, according to The Good Food Institute, a non-profit that supports and studies alternative protein creation.
There are now dozens of cellular agriculture companies worldwide producing animal products — without the animals.
David Kaplan: Cellular agriculture will give consumers more choice
“Any new technology takes roughly 20 years to become acceptable.… So we’re embryonic,” Kaplan says. “However, that does not mean the field can’t move fast and become more real in the next few years. It takes a lot of effort by a lot of folks and you’re seeing that.”
Singapore became the first country in the world to approve the sale of cultured meat at the end of 2020. San Francisco-based Eat Just’s lab-grown chicken nuggets are now being sold in restaurants across the region.
In the U.S., you can already buy milk and other dairy products such as ice cream and cream cheese that were made without any cows. Using precision fermentation, a process similar to brewing beer, Perfect Day creates whey protein that is molecularly identical to cow whey protein. It has the taste and texture of traditional dairy, but is naturally free of lactose, hormones and antibiotics and carries a significantly reduced environmental footprint.
“We are focused on offering a sustainable alternative to factory farming,” says Ravi Jhala, the head of global commercial operations at Perfect Day.
Ravi Jhala of Perfect Day on the future of dairy production
Jhala envisions a world where cow-less whey products replace the supply of dairy milk provided by these large industrial farms, while allowing small family farms to thrive.
“These technologies work in tandem with that high-end (product),” says Newman. “Seventy per cent of dairy in the U.S. goes into powdered milk that’s used in food products. We can replace that without even noticing and we can actually make food slightly cheaper, better for us, and we can eliminate a giant chunk of industrial dairy.”
Startups in Canada are developing these innovative products too. Toronto-based Cell Ag Tech is working on a cultured snapper. Montreal-based Opalia is creating a cell-based milk. And Edmonton-based Future Fields is selling the liquid medium used to grow the cells.
With the exception of a few skeptics, onlookers in the agri-food sector are optimistic that cellular agriculture is the meat of the future. Studies have already shown that climate-conscious younger people will be resoundingly open to eating cultured protein. And with the price of meat anticipated to continue to rise, lab-grown meat may someday become the cheaper option. That’s when things will get interesting, Newman says.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, we ate a lot of wild game. Back then, I might have gone out to get a pigeon pie. What we eat changes,” she says.
“I quite confidently predict that in 100 years there’ll be very little animal agriculture on earth. We’ll look back at industrial slaughter and we’ll say, ‘Wow, it’s amazing we did that.’ And the labour conditions were horrible, the animal conditions were terrible. And, wow, we have a way better product.”