Indoor farming could improve B.C. food security amid climate change

It’s a chilly, wet October day in Langley, B.C., and Colin Chapdelaine, president of B.C. Hothouse Foods, is standing in a warm field of cucumbers. He’s surrounded by the plants — and a complex system of LED lights, irrigation, walls and a roof. 

According to Chapdelaine, the cucumbers are ready to pick just 18 days after small plants are put into their substrate-filled containers in the facility. A day later, the cucumbers will be in stores.

The best part? They can be grown all year.

This is indoor growing — or controlled environment agriculture — a version of agriculture far-removed from the system in which most fruits and vegetables are still cultivated.

“What’s happening right now is very exciting,” said Chapdelaine. “There’s a renaissance in farming that’s happening right now before our eyes, in our time.”

Colin Chapdelaine, president of B.C. Hothouse Foods, says produce like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and strawberries can be grown locally under lights to avoid shipping them from places like California. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

The revolution can’t come quickly enough, according to Lenore Newman, director of the food and agriculture institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, who closely watched the effects of climate change over the summer — both in B.C. and in the United States.

“When I look at the heat dome event out west this year, it was catastrophic,” said Newman, noting both the human toll and the toll the wildfires, heat waves, and droughts took on crops in California.

She said $1.2 billion in food is imported to British Columbia from California each year, with more coming from places like Mexico.

“When you’re eating a California strawberry, you’re literally eating California water, which they can’t afford to send to us,” said Newman.

For her, the advantages to local indoor growing include eliminating long shipping routes — and all the carbon emissions and food waste they bring — reduced water and pesticide use, as well as better-managed labour conditions.

Chapdelaine said the indoor-grown crops his company markets require less pesticide than crops grown in an open field. The water is also recovered and cycled through the irrigation system, meaning some plants need less than 10 per cent the water needed outdoors.

Improving technology

The infrastructure required to grow indoors is significant, and of course it comes at a cost, but Chapdelaine said the price of LED lights has rapidly decreased, and other technology has also improved to make this kind of growing viable for more types of crops.

High-value produce like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers have been among the most successful crops in the 150 acres of facilities his company markets, but Chapdelaine said strawberries are expected to fill 25 acres next season.

For Newman, the next big thing in controlled environment agriculture in the province will be leafy greens and herbs. More and more types of plant will become profitable to grow indoors as LED and other costs continue to drop.

But she doesn’t expect certain crops to be grown in greenhouses under lights any time soon, even if the fields where they’re grown are subject to extreme weather like last summer’s heat dome. According to Newman, crops like wheat, pulses and potatoes will likely stay outside in the dirt.

 

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