Canada needs to become more secure by becoming more self-sufficient. In a new series — Strong & Free: Shockproofing Canada — the Post examines how a country made wealthy by globalization and trade can also protect itself against pandemics and other unknown future shocks to ensure some of our immense resources and economic power are reserved for our own security.
Peter Quiring has been fielding more calls than usual from various levels of government all eager to discuss food.
“It’s funny … you’re asking me about food security, and I’m just about to get on a call right after this with the government because there’s a lot of interest in food independence and security right now, both provincially and federally,” said the founder and president of Leamington, Ont.-based Nature Fresh Farms, one of the largest greenhouse growers in the country.
To be honest with you, we could grow much more than we do right now. And I think we’re headed there
Peter Quiring, founder of Nature Fresh Farms
“To be honest with you, we could grow much more than we do right now. And I think we’re headed there.”
The reason for all that interest, of course, is that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted global supply chains across various sectors and the food chain is clearly an important one for most people and governments.
The COVID-19 fallout has sparked a renewed interest in the issue of domestic food security, particularly as to whether Canada has enough capacity to grow its own food in a doomsday scenario where the country could no longer rely on imports.
Some food experts say greenhouses, including those currently mothballed by the struggling cannabis industry, could play an increasingly important role in being prepared for such an eventuality.
“Because of the climate we have, our outdoor seasonal production of fruits and vegetables is capped,” said Simon Somogyi, Arrell Chair in the Business of Food at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “Greenhouses are less subject to that seasonality. If there are more research dollars dedicated to optimizing vegetable breeds to grow better in greenhouses, we will be able to switch more kinds of vegetables over from outdoor growing to indoor growing.”
we could certainly move to ramp up greenhouse production pretty quickly using all the spare capacity that we have
Simon Somogyi, Arrell Chair in the Business of Food at the University of Guelph
Quiring — who owns 700 acres of greenhouses in Ontario, and has constructed an additional 2,000 acres across the province — said food security issues and the role greenhouses can play in buttressing the supply chain have repeatedly come up during the past couple of years. As a result, he said, almost all his greenhouse developments have sold pretty quickly.
“Every time there is a hurricane, or a drought or too much rain, or too much frost, the southern producers have nothing to sell to retailers,” he said. “If there is one problem that is bigger than high prices, it is nothing to sell. You can still make money from high prices, but you cannot make money from nothing to sell, so that’s the biggest reason why I get calls enquiring about greenhouse production,”
Quiring said fast-food service providers such as Wendy’s and Subway have been “rapidly switching” most of their produce supply to greenhouses, because of inconsistencies in the outdoor farming supply chain that existed long before the current pandemic and will continue to exist long afterwards.
“There is certainly the opportunity to grow more,” Somogyi said. “At least in the short term, we could certainly move to ramp up greenhouse production pretty quickly using all the spare capacity that we have.”
Doing so would be an expensive endeavour, because Canada is currently very reliant on importing fruit and vegetables, the majority of which are grown outdoors.
Canadians consumed $16-billion worth of fruit and vegetables in 2016, the most recent year Statistics Canada has data for that metric. The value of greenhouse vegetable production that year was roughly $1.3 billion, and $860 million, or 65 per cent, of that amount was exported.
In the early 1990s, Canada was the largest producer of greenhouse products in North America, but the United States and Mexico have since caught up
In the early 1990s, Canada was the largest producer of greenhouse products in North America, but the United States and Mexico have since caught up.
In the past six years, greenhouse fruit and vegetable sales have risen — to $1.5 billion as of 2018, according to Statistics Canada — mainly because consumers are placing more priority on consuming produce grown in a pesticide-free environment, but, ultimately, a very small percentage of the produce consumed in Canada originates from Canadian greenhouses.
One of the biggest reasons for that is the limited variety of produce that can be grown on a mass scale in greenhouses, with the primary vegetables being tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
Canada’s greenhouse industry also produces lettuce, green beans, eggplants, and some herbs and microgreens, but all in very small quantities, almost negligible in terms of being able to supply the domestic population.
Both provincial and federal governments have funded studies into how to increase the yields of existing greenhouse crops as well as greenhouse automation techniques, but less has been invested in how to increase the variety of crops that are able to thrive indoors.
“The R&D component is so important,” Somogyi said. “This is really about incentivizing the creation of a local food system with industrial-level production.”
But if Canada ever developed the ability to grow a variety of vegetables on a large scale in greenhouses across the country, one thing that shouldn’t be a problem is space.
Thousands of square feet of shuttered cannabis greenhouses are now lying empty in British Columbia and Ontario due to the sudden and rapid decline of that industry over the past six months.
Most of those greenhouses used to grow vegetables, and were retrofitted with state-of-the-art systems tailored to growing marijuana in the early days of the legal cannabis industry boom in 2017 and 2018.
As of November 2019, according to calculations by cannabis analyst Chris Damas, there was at least 23 million square feet of cannabis greenhouses in Canada and more than three million square feet has since been shuttered.
“If we were called upon by the government to use our empty greenhouses to grow vegetables, yes, of course, we would do it,” said Sebastien St-Louis, chief executive of Hexo Corp., a Quebec-based licensed cannabis producer that was forced to close down a large greenhouse in Niagara, Ont., last November as part of cost-cutting measures undertaken in the face of declining revenues.
George Smitherman, head of the Cannabis Council of Canada, an industry lobby group, said he sent a letter to the federal government just last week that stated the cannabis industry is ready to help, if need be, on the issue of food security.
“Surplus growing capacity does exist in the cannabis sector, and so we want to impress upon the government that we are here to help,” he said.
But Quiring, who is involved in the cannabis industry through a partnership with licensed producer Auxly Cannabis Group Inc., cautioned that while it is not very difficult to turn cannabis greenhouses back into vegetable greenhouses, there would likely be little incentive from a monetary perspective.
“The problem is that cannabis greenhouses cost five times as much to retrofit as a vegetable greenhouse, so when you have that much money invested, it is hard to take the hit,” he said.
“But look, although I think it is really unlikely, in an extreme situation, if it comes to that, we’re here. We will do it.”