Over the past few decades federal governments, provincial governments, and academic institutions in Canada have been pouring millions of dollars into indoor food production projects (including hydroponics, aquaponics, heated greenhouses, etc.) in Canada’s North.*
The intention with these projects is to provide the food security that is so desperately needed in Northern communities. However, the reality is that these projects provide little or no real food security. If the millions spent on these projects had instead been spent on more appropriate food production methods, many Northern communities could already be food-self-sufficient.
Our purpose at the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) is to restore food independence and food security to people and communities in Canada’s North. So we are disappointed when we see resources spent in the name of food security constantly going towards food production methods which do not actually provide food security. The obsession with hydroponics, aquaponics, year-round greenhouses, and other types of indoor growing methods is a major barrier to the establishment of food security in Canada’s Northern communities.
This problem stems, we have found, from a misunderstanding of “food security” itself:
Genuine food security means that when the ice road is closed, or the airplane can’t fly, the community can still feed itself the staple foods needed for survival and basic health. This means that northern communities need ultra-stable, and local, sources of calorie-rich foods. Understanding this simple concept is essential for understanding the problem with indoor and soil-less growing techniques in the North.
The primary problem with hydroponic systems, aquaponic systems, and almost all indoor growing systems is that they do not provide the calorie rich foods which are needed for food security. The vast majority of these systems produce only vegetables, and especially low-calorie vegetables like lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, herbs, etc. Human beings cannot survive on these types of foods, which is why these projects do not provide food security.
There are only four categories of staple foods which are capable of keeping a human alive for an extended period of time:
- Calorie rich root crops (potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, etc.)
- Domesticated grain crops (wheat, barley, corn, rice, etc.)
- Tree crops (fruits and nuts)
- Meat products from animals
- Dairy products from animals (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.)
At the Northern Farm Training Institute we have experimented with all of these types of foods, and we have also learned from the experiences of others in the North. These are our conclusions:
Calorie rich root crops work well in the North when grow outdoors (or in an unheated greenhouse) in soil.
Attempting to grow these types of crops year-round, or using soil-less growing methods (like hydroponics or aquaponics) is extremely expensive, energy intensive, and difficult. Also, large quantities of these crops are needed to actually feed a community, requiring massive investment and infrastructure if they are grown indoors.
We do grow a lot of calorie rich root crops at the Northern Farm Training Institute, and we believe they are an important part of Northern food security (although not as important as animals, which we discuss later). However, we grow these crops outside, in soil, during the summer, and then preserve them to last until next-year's harvest. This outdoor method of crop production has many advantages over indoor, or hydroponic, production methods:
- Outdoor growing is extremely low cost, both to start and to maintain. The only items that need to be purchased in most communities to produce root crops outdoors are a rototiller (or pigs can be used, or no-till growing methods can be used), basic hand-tools, seeds, and some sprinklers for watering. Compare this to indoor growing methods which require the entire growing area be covered by a shelter capable of withstanding the northern climate (typically costing tens of thousands of dollars for even a small growing area), and which often require extremely expensive hydroponic systems, artificial lighting, and heating during the winter.
- Outdoor growing often requires less skill and technical proficiency; there is no complicated technology or machinery (such as hydroponic water systems, heating systems, etc) to manage. We have observed many systems in remote communities fail because they were too complicated for community members to easily manage.
- Outdoor growing is not heavily reliant on external inputs of electricity, heat and fuel. In remote communities, a disruption in transportation routes (leading to a need for immediate food security) is often accompanied by a loss of fuel sources for generating electricity or heat. This means that most indoor growing systems will fail exactly when the community needs them most!
- Outdoor growing does not require specialized technology. When a specialized hydroponic, or aquaponic system breaks down in a northern community it is often extremely difficult and expensive to get replacement parts.
- Outdoor growing spaces also have the advantage of being able to scale up easily and instantly; simply clear more land. Most northern communities have no shortage of land. To expand an indoor production system, however, requires the construction of new shelter structures, which is obviously very expensive and time consuming. This matters a lot when you consider that the average remote community in the North would need at least 5 acres of intensive root crop production to produce just 15% of their calorie needs!
Domesticated grain crops are not appropriate for providing food security in the North. When grown outside these crops will not mature (produce grain) in most Northern communities due to the short, cold growing season. Theoretically these crops can be grown with indoor growing systems, but they provide very few calories per plant, making them a terrible choice for most indoor growing systems. Additionally, it takes specialized processing equipment, skill, and lots of labour to turn a standing grain crop into usable food for Northern food security.
Fruit and Nuts
Fruit and nuts are both calorie rich foods, but they are similar to grain in that they are not appropriate for the majority of remote Northern communities. This is because only a handful of fruits can survive the winters and frozen soil of the North. The proven tree crops (actually bushes) are Saskatoon Berries, Sour Cherries, Raspberries, and Haskaps. These are good sources of vitamin C during the winter, and they do provide calories, but berries alone cannot keep a community alive and healthy like more traditional staple foods can.
Nut crops are completely untested in the far-north so far. Most nut trees cannot survive the harsh winters. However we are trialing pine nuts, and some other cold-hardy nuts at the Northern Farm Training Institute. But we will have to wait many years for those results to be available.
Animal-based food production (meat and dairy) is almost always a better choice for providing real food security in northern communities than any plant crop. At the Northern Farm Training Institute, our experience and research has lead us to focus on north-hardy livestock animals as the most important tool for providing genuine food security in the North.
Why are animals the best choice for Northern food security?
- Animal foods are the traditional foods of Northern peoples, and have provided 90% or more of their calorie needs for thousands of years.
- Animals can produce fresh food year-round without the energy inputs needed to grow plants year-round.
- Animal foods can keep people alive and healthy for extended periods of time. They are calorie rich and full of essential nutrients.
- Animals can easily be raised in any Northern community without electricity, heat, water, etc. (if the appropriate animals and grazing methods are used). Making them extremely sustainable and reliable if transportation routes are disrupted.
- Animals reproduce easily and regularly, so once animals are in a community they can produce food for the community forever (if the appropriate animals, feeding and care methods are used).
- Animals produce other products which are extremely valuable in northern communities:
- Wool, and hair for making fabric and warm clothing
- Hides and fur for clothing, shelter or tool making
- Bones, organs, and manure for building soil fertility to allow plant crops to grow (manure can also be dried and used to fuel fires in areas without wood)
- Raising animals can bring many environmental benefits to the land they are raised on (if the animals are managed with Holistic Planned Grazing); including carbon sequestration, soil improvements, increased plant productivity and biodiversity, etc.
- Producing meat in northern communities with domestic animals takes hunting pressure off declining wildlife populations, allowing them to recover.
When Is Indoor Growing Appropriate?
Hydroponics, Aquaponics, and other indoor growing systems are not solutions for Northern food security, but they can be profitable farm business and create jobs. Of course, in order for this sort of business to work it must have access to a market of customers who want leafy greens, and who can afford to buy them on a regular basis. This means that these businesses are worthwhile in large, wealthy Northern communities, but not the majority of fly-in communities.
If there is one thing we have learned at the Northern Farm Training Institute it is that Canada’s far-north has incredible food production potential. It is not the frozen wasteland that so many people imagine it to be! Not only are indoor growing systems ineffective and inefficient, we don’t need them in the North. Wherever there is soil, plant crops can be grown outside and wherever there is vegetation, animals can be raised outside.
We hope that government and community decision makers will come to understand that these high-tech growing systems are a poor use of funds, and not real solutions to food insecurity. Outdoor food production methods like the ones we teach at the Northern Farm Training Institute (Holistic Planned Grazing, bio-intensive vegetable production, permaculture orchards, etc.) are already proven to work in the North and offer immediate, low cost food security; the type of food security that can feed a whole community forever without external inputs from the South of Canada.
*These are just a few of the many projects, and articles which have prompted us to speak up about this issue: