In Canada, we import $48 billion of food each year from around the world. That’s a lot of food and there are many reasons—including pandemics—why it’s a risk. As COVID-19 strains our food supply and tightens borders, it’s a great time to think about Canadian food self-reliance.
Let’s look at some more numbers.
The global population will grow to 10 billion by 2050, and the world will need to produce about 70% more food to keep up. If this doesn’t already sound like a huge challenge, we’ll need to figure out how to do it with our proverbial hands tied behind our backs.
For starters, the global food system is changing the climate on which it heavily relies. Since agriculture accounts for around 30% of global carbon emissions, the world must both increase food supply and reduce emissions at the same time—all while under threat of increasing climate-related challenges like rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of extreme weather. Additionally, global pollinator loss is estimated to decrease world food productivity by 23%.
Then there is food safety. Today, four million Canadians get sick annually from contaminated food—11,500 are hospitalized and 250 die. As the global food system struggles to keep up with demand, food safety becomes an even bigger challenge.
For example, the US recently increased the speed allowable for poultry inspection by 25% to 175 birds per minute. 175 birds a minute! For human inspection. Despite trade protections, our chicken imports were expected to hit record highs in 2020—mostly from the US. In Canada, the rate for poultry inspection is 50 birds per minute or less.
Meanwhile, produce is by far the leading source of food poisoning. Each year, we can expect a recall of Romaine lettuce from California or Arizona as a matter of course. In fact, over the last 20 years we averaged about 1.5 outbreaks annually. Despite this, the US FDA recently pushed back the compliance deadline for stricter inspection of agriculture water (a leading cause of pathogen outbreaks). Canada imports 90% of our leafy greens, almost all from the US.
The increasing complexity of global food chains makes finding solutions to these challenges exponentially more challenging, and largely out of our control.
So, let’s take control. But how?
In Canada, we have lived with these vulnerabilities partially of necessity. Our climate is not exactly ideal for year-round farming! But a food revolution is underway as technology enables new efficiencies and possibilities. We can grow a more diverse number of crops locally through technological improvements in open field farming, advanced greenhouses and emerging indoor controlled environment agriculture (CEA). Meanwhile, the technology for alternative protein like plant-based meats, cellular agriculture, insects and algae is ideal for developing within our northern climate.
Taking control of our food security is one of the big reasons we founded Fieldless Farms. We are still in early days, but as CEA technology improves, we can reclaim more-and-more food chains with safe, reliable, and delicious produce, all year long. While it’s no silver bullet for Canadian food self-sufficiency, it can be part of the long-term solution to economically replace imports. Today, lettuce and herbs can be grown competitively, and Canada happens to have the largest lettuce trade deficit in the world, worth about $500 million a year. But on the near horizon we can see growing berries and some small vegetables economically too.
We need a national effort to grow and manufacture more of the foods we import today. At Fieldless Farms, we’re proud to be part of a movement to feed Canadians a more complete modern diet, safely from within our borders. For us, it’s not just a $48 billion economic opportunity, it’s also an insurance policy for our country’s food supply.
Jon Lomow is the CEO of Fieldless Farms