Hi, my name is Evan Fraser, and I'm the Director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. This is part of a regular podcast series on how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious. Technology is racing to create situations for over 4 million Canadians who are food insecure. One of these proposed solutions is vertical farming. I have Chantel Kozachenko here to discuss this growing trend, what it is, and the implications it may offer for Northern residents. Chantel has a passion for Northern food security cultivated in her final years of undergrad where a class project opened her eyes to the food security challenge in Nunavut. Today, her research interests have developed into a master's thesis where she is focused on understanding experts' perceptions on the development of vertical farming in northern Canada. Vertical farming to promote food security. Welcome Chantel.
Thank you, Evan. So I had the pleasure a few months ago to interview Dr. Dickson Despommier. He's the emeritus professor at Columbia University who is attributed with being the father of modern vertical farming. So he helped to explain what vertical farming is and how it can be used to improve food security. vertical farming has the potential for high production of crops that could feed large populations. Dr. Despommier offered this very idea during our interview when he explained a little bit about what vertical farming is, and how he's been involved with the technology. Let's listen into his response.
Dr. Despommier 1:50
So I decided to offer a basic course in ecology to public health students. And it was, I had to, I had to couch it in such a way that would attract students to the course. So I called it medical ecology. And about halfway through that course, which had about seven students in it, they got really depressed over all of the destruction that was occurring, at least that I was documenting for them. I said, well, if you're depressed over this, I said, well, would you rather work on it?
So they came back to me a week later and said they would like to see if they could supply a significant amount of food for people living in cities. That was their idea. So they wanted to do rooftop gardening, and rooftop gardening is a good idea. So I said great, as long as you do the science, and do calculations correctly as to how much farmland you'd have on rooftops of non-commercial buildings, let's just take Manhattan, because New York is a pretty big place, let's see how many people we can feed in Manhattan. So at the end of the year, they calculated that growing rice, which was the most energetic crop in terms of calories per bite, that you could grow, with your available rooftops, you can feed about 2% of Manhattan, which depressed them, even worse than the data that I was talking to them about. But at that moment, I then tried to make them feel better about their input by saying that if they took the rooftop concept, and simply moved it into those buildings, instead of 2%, you can feed 12%, because most of those buildings were six floors tall.
Now, of course, you couldn't do that, because people are living in those floors. But there are lots of abandoned buildings available in New York City that that was absolutely a good solution for, so that began the idea of vertical farming. I didn't call it that in the beginning. But the next year's class wanted to pick up where that class left off. And so I had 10 consecutive years worth of input from very bright people who really believed that this was a possible solution to slowing down climate change. And that's basically what we were all interested in joining to slow it down, meaning stop cutting down forests to make room for crops. Start farming in another way so that the trees that you've chopped down, could grow back and the sequester carbon, and perhaps balance the co2 in the atmosphere with the amount being released with trees, and I believe, I truly believe that indoor farming in urban centres to feed the urban populations is now a reality.
Now a reality meaning, do we feed everybody in the city by growing food and buildings and the answer, of course is no. Or the other question, of course is could we, or even should we? So my opinion is that the more I think about this, and the more I hear about it from other people too, yes, we should design closed systems to accommodate large numbers of people, millions of people. And we should have vertical farms in virtually every heavily populated region of the world. And the miracle is, of course, that that's exactly what's happening right now.
Thank you for that explanation. So to summarise, vertical farming is an indoor growing system that is estimated to slow down climate change by giving farmland back to the forests and provide food for urban populations. How then, do you see vertical farming as a contributor to Northern food security?
Dr. Despommier 5:35
Way up north, I don't know what they they probably whitefish earlier, they eat a lot of meats that they don't they trap a lot of salmon and a lot of fish. So it's a heavy protein diet. There's very little vegetable augmentation. Let's put it that way. And then you can eat wheat, if you want, but then you'll just turn that into flour, and then you'll just turn that into bread. So that's a lot of starch that you're talking about. So what you really are missing are all the leafy green vegetables, the root vegetables and bush berries, or maybe not bush berries, because you do get some very nice saskatoons up there, but those are seasonal, and the bears like them too, so watch out.
How can you overcome the lack of a balanced diet in a geographically challenging place? It doesn't just mean Canada, although it does, that's where I was talking about. But I mean, the Middle East is another place that has no soil. They import 90% of their food from other places. They have to trust the food purveyors, in order to assure the public that food they import is safe to eat, and it's healthy for you and you should eat it. Japan has a similar problem.
So the solution that I see is that food independence is key. And in the past, it wasn't possible. I mean, you could suggest greenhouses, but they weren't plant dense enough to supply enough food for the people that actually required that. So greenhouses might be okay for small populations. But taller structures are absolutely required to feed hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions of people. And I think that the technologies now exist to actually do that. So I think having a vertical farm or to be constructed, it would be a community based project and everybody would benefit because everybody would work in it, everybody would benefit from it, everybody would eat the food that they grew. And by the way, they get to choose what they grow inside of these buildings. It's not dictated as to what's grown inside. It just says look if you want fresh produce, and you can define that any way you want. These buildings offer the opportunity of having it year round. Vertical farming is the answer to eliminating the need to transport food over large distances. And it also eliminates the need for seasonality. There are no seasons indoors so you can grow anything you want, and you can grow as much of it as you want, provided that the structure is large enough. And you can harvest on a daily basis. So you've got 24/7/365 and that's what vertical farming is all about.
As you can see, Evan vertical farming has the ability to tick off many of the boxes of improving northern food security. Dr. Despommier listed just a few in his interview, including food independence from corporations, limiting transportation costs, and eliminating seasonality of fresh produce. And while many of his points suggest vertical farming is the solution to low rates of food security in Canada's north, there are others who disagree with this position. I also was able to interview Jackie Milne, a farmer in the Northwest Territories, who teaches Northerners how to grow their own food and become food self sufficient. When I asked her if vertical farming was a contributor to food security, she was strongly against this technology, and those pushing the technology. Let's listen to her interview.
I have a very short tolerance for this discussion, because it's exploitive. Okay? And what it is, is these are salesmen. They're slick, they're going to the decision makers who are in positions in areas they have no expertise, and they are worried, they don't know what to do and they just want to be able to buy something. Let's just buy something. And we'll be like, okay, we'll be saved. To me, it's like they're treating this technology like it's the next Christ. It's just gonna swoop in, we can just buy this tin box that has no windows and it's just gonna save us it's gonna make this problem go away.
The colonial system, very, very effectively practically destroyed a culture that was based on food to survive in the north. The level of Social complexity and cooperation that was needed to provide for the Northern people before colonialism, we don't even understand. Okay, and so to think, at this point in time, now Indigenous people are going okay, yeah, we want to restore ourselves, we want to restore our food independence, because that's what this is about. To then take literally sick amounts of money for the project they're trying to get up in the High Arctic, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They'll say, oh, it'll produce 10,000 pounds of food. I'm so not impressed. You know why? It's growing salad. And you know what? People eat salad to lose weight. Oh, so how do you address food security with the food that people eat to lose weight? That 10,000 pounds, if you add the calorific value is not enough to feed one person.
I am grotesquely offended by the depth of the stupidity because the next thing about it is salad greens, for the food value that they represent, are only food for the richest segment of the population. Poor people are not going to spend that much money on 40 calories. So what it can do is those salad greens can be produced by an independent farmer, and then they could mine the pockets of the rich who can afford to eat a low calorie food produced out of season in the dead of winter.
Jackie only saw one rule for vertical farming technology in the north, and that was as food for the richest segment of the population. Jackie has been very successful in her farm training programme and sees no need for vertical farming that basically marginalises and further promotes colonialist ideals in the north.
This is affecting the very sovereignty of the country. Canada is failing to provide for the people that they forced to settle. Those units do not produce core staples. It represents the sprig of parsley on your meal. There are people who are suffering, children who are suffering nutritional deficiencies and universities are even thinking that he's okay to absolutely waste money growing lettuce remotely in a greenhouse? This is a shameful thing that has been done. So now to attempt to try to do this? No.
Both Dr. Despommier and Jackie have some strong views surrounding vertical farming technology as a provider of food security. Dr. Despommier promotes vertical farming as a real need in today's society to slow climate change and provide fresh produce year round. Jackie is strongly opposed to the idea that technology will be the North's saviour of their food insecurity woes, and instead advocates for funding and support for Northerners to develop their own solutions, such as local farming.
As the polarising views suggest, food security is more than just providing enough calories for everyone, or having food accessible to all. Food security also includes providing culturally appropriate foods to people, and amongst Indigenous people especially you can't talk about food security without including food sovereignty. Indigenous people, especially those that I have talked with in my research, emphasise that food security must be solved through food sovereignty so that communities of Indigenous people are able to define and implement their own solution. With a few vertical farms are currently running in the north, and with more set to be opened, it is important for the Northern voice to be heard and what their needs are in promoting food security in their community. My interviews suggested encouraging food sovereignty in the quest for food security will do far more than any technological solution could ever provide.
Thank you for those informative interviews, Chantel. Both the interviews have given us a lot to think about in terms of technological solutions to Northern food insecurity. Chantel, there's such differing opinions on this topic. In your opinion, and from what you've learned from all these interviews, what hope is there for ending Northern food insecurity with vertical farms?
I think there is hope that vertical farming could provide some form of food security in the north. And despite each of the strong differences between the two interviews, the message that rings strong in each was that a solution would come from somewhere. While it may not involve vertical farming at all, it could involve northern farming, and it most certainly should include food sovereignty. It could very well be a mix of all these solutions. Whatever the solution will be pointing to one technology as a solution is not the answer. Rather diversifying solutions and recognising Northerners food sovereignty will have a more beneficial action on improving Northern food security.
Thank you, Chantel. Thank you so much for the insightful discussion on the role of vertical farming; the role this technology can play in Northern food insecurity and food security. To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our show today. And we would like to hear from you through our social media channels. What role do you think vertical farming technology could play on Northern food security?
You have been listening to the Feeding 9 Billion podcast. To learn more about food security or to incorporate food security into your classroom, please visit our website at feeding9billion.com. This podcast is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair programme.