Agtech pushes the boundaries of food production and fuels a debate about who is considered a farmer
Indoor Farming Challenges | ANN HUI |
Image: QuantoTech founder Alycia van der Gracht in one of their hydroponic units that use LED light to grow vegetables in Port Coquitlam, B.C., on Jan. 16, 2023.JIMMY JEONG/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
It started with cherry tomatoes.
As a university student, Alycia van der Gracht would plant small pots of them on her apartment balcony. Over time, she added mini peppers and basil. But as the weather grew colder, she had to find a way to keep her little garden alive indoors. So she began experimenting with LED lights.
Fast-forward a decade, and Ms. van der Gracht has turned her hobby into a business. Her Vancouver-based company QuantoTech designs and manufactures vertical farms: LED lights, hydroponic systems and everything else needed to grow food indoors. She’s built a farm of her own as well, growing romaine and green lettuce out of an industrial warehouse in nearby Port Coquitlam.
Vertical farming is a business that’s quickly taken off – for Ms. van der Gracht, but also around the world. Globally, the industry is projected to be worth more than US$20-billion by the end of the decade. Its popularity makes sense in the context of the two urgent challenges facing our global food system: climate change, and feeding a growing population. Vertical farming produces large volumes of food using much less land or water and, crucially in a country such as Canada, it can do it predictably, 365 days a year, regardless of climate or geography.
“There’s no limit in the demand,” says Ms. van der Gracht, whose business recently received investments to expand significantly: up from 50 shelves in 800 square feet to 1,000 shelves in a new, 15,000-square-foot farm.
Image: The indoor grow room at GoodLeaf Farms in Guelph, Ont. The popularity of vertical farming speaks to the prevalence two urgent challenges facing the global food system: climate change, and feeding a growing global population.NATHAN CYPRYS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
She’s set on locating the farm as close to Vancouver as possible. But it’s a decision that’s throwing up roadblocks. The few city spaces that are available are expensive, and municipal policies, she said, have created barriers, in part because her operation doesn’t fit the criteria for “farm.” On the flip side, if she goes the rural route, she’d face opposition from traditional farmers concerned about the changing face of agricultural landscape.
Ms. van der Gracht’s difficulties illustrate the challenges faced by players in Canada’s agtech industry – an increasingly popular term that encompasses the growing number of businesses using technology to improve efficiency in agriculture, from AI-powered crop sprayers to robotic dairy-milking systems.
Where do they fit in the larger food system – as food producers, or factories? And do they belong in cities or in the countryside?
“There’s been a bit of a culture war in food,” says Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Ultimately, the debate reconsiders the idea of farming altogether: What is a farm? And who gets to call themselves a farmer? On this, Ms. van der Gracht is clear: “I am a farmer.”
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