The Obsession with Hydroponics and Indoor Growing Damages Northern Food Security

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.*

One of the many hydroponic systems being promoted as a solution for Northern food security. Source: Project SucSeed

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.

The Inuit have the highest rate of food security of any indigenous group in a developed country. Source: Genevieve Nutarariaq/Facebook

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:

  1. Calorie rich root crops (potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, etc.)
  2. Domesticated grain crops (wheat, barley, corn, rice, etc.)
  3. Tree crops (fruits and nuts)
  4. Meat products from animals
  5. 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:

Root Crops

Calorie rich root crops work well in the North when grow outdoors (or in an unheated greenhouse) in soil.

A small crop of potatoes grown in a garden in the Northwest Territories.

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!

Grain Crops

Hydroponically grown corn.

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 Foods

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.

    A Dene woman preparing fish. Source: Hewitt Collection, Pahkisimon Nuye,áh Library System
  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

A nourishing meal rich in calories and all the essential nutrients. Eggs, cheese, and vegetables produced 100% at the Northern Farm Training Institute

*These are just a few of the many projects, and articles which have prompted us to speak up about this issue:

Kale in the Arctic

Quebec spending $5M to encourage sustainable greenhouse gardens in Nunavik

Funding for new generation greenhouses in Canada's north

Government of Canada Supports NWT Greenhouse Feasibility Studies

Greenhouses can help food security in Canada's vulnerable North

Ryerson students, Nunavut hamlet team up on food insecurity

Canadian Integrated Northern Greenhouse for National Food Security

Local producers and communities are making the cultivation of fresh fruit and vegetables feasible in Northern Canada

Northern Food Security: The Greenhouse Solution

Project SucSeed is Bringing More Produce to the Plate for Those in Canada’s North

11 thoughts on “The Obsession with Hydroponics and Indoor Growing Damages Northern Food Security”

  1. Very interesting well researched concise and informative. Well done !

    Interested in anything I can do to support your efforts. Very interested and experienced in raising cashmere 3 purpose goats, heritage foraging pigs, hardy shetland or brown Swiss cows and heritage foraging fowl.

    Looking at demonstration setups for Earthwise in Agassiz BC for easy all included shipping with 20 and 40 foot containers.

    Love to discuss 😊

    Best Regards,

    Denine Omand
    CatalystD9@gmail.com

    1. Thanks for your comment. What is needed is training local people in each community on these much more appropriate food production methods, and funding support for these local people once they are ready and want to set up some sort of sustainable local food system in their community (most of the food systems we advocate are actually profitable, even in remote communities, because the costs of production are SO low, but the initial costs to set up these systems are usually too high for local people, most of whom do not have their own capital or access to financing). We are working hard on all of these things, since Complete food security in the North is our goal. Unfortunately funders, so far, seem much more willing to fund over-hyped indoor growing projects (like the ones mentioned in the article) rather than they types of simple projects we advocate for. A big help would be for the perception of decision makers in governments, universities, and non-profits to shift away from their current obsession (we don’t use that word lightly) with the systems mentioned in this article, and that is part of what we were trying to accomplish when we published this article.

  2. I think there is room for a hybrid approach as no one solution will resolve the issue of food security in the North. If we get away from growing greens and pursue the perishable commodities there is still plenty of room for controlled environment agriculture as part of the solution in the North. Damning it completely as the title of this article seems to imply is not a helpful approach.

    1. Mike, what you are saying is fine if we are trying primarily to provide food “DIVERSITY” in the North. But we are trying to provide food “SECURITY”, which is what Northern people need most, and hydroponics have almost no role to play in food security. As we mention in the article, those types of systems can be profitable and bring economic growth to some communities in the North, but beyond that they are not appropriate solutions.

      1. That’s right Sheldon!

        “those types of systems can be profitable and bring economic growth to some communities in the North, but beyond that they are not appropriate solutions.”

        ‘not appropriate solutions’ for solid, dependable, life saving food security!

        There is a huge difference between operating a salad greens business catering to high restaurants and producing staple foods for regular people on a day to day basis!

  3. As far as I can recall, cow’s (or goat’s) milk is not a traditional northern staple. Going to start milking caribou?

  4. This! Love it.

    I regularly get into debates with extremely well-intentioned funders, community groups and investors about these exact issues. There is so much latent excitement around decentralized agriculture production, but I frequently feel like much of the energy invested into hydroponic / aquaponic development boils down to hype. Not every food security initiative needs to be a production project. I’m a little shocked at some of the money that a few of inititives have received, in spite of the obvious fact they have not chosen an ‘appropriate technology’ for the situation on the ground. In addition to the concepts presented here by NFTI, what about food buying clubs, dry-goods bulk shipments, culinary skills training, etc?

    What the majority of controlled-environment ag / indoor ag / vertical farms produce is ‘hipster food’; the leafy greens and herbs of high-end cuisine and health-conscious consumers. If we look to food security challenges in northern climes, the juice must be worth the squeeze as you folks cogently explain here. Curious to learn more about how aquaculture systems could be integrated with permaculture orchards to provide a constant source of organic liquid fertilizer (fish emulsion & mineralized effluent).

    When does aquaponics make sense in the north?
    -Aquaculture output is a key part of the project, not just the nutrient driver for a hydroponic system.
    -Yearly landed fish yield is AT LEAST 10 tons. Anything less is not worth the effort for the protein production, especially if there are appropriate wild harvest sources.
    -Cold tolerant fish (arctic char, trout, etc) are required. Full stop.
    -Capacity and skills-development program is conducted in parallel.
    -aquaculture effluent production that exceeds hydroponic needs is diverted and retained for use as organic spray-applied fertilizer.

    just my 2p. Keep up the good work!

    Evan

    1. I have thought about the fish farming too, but we still need to come back to the very long and cold winters so it might only be a seasonal operation at most. Then we do have many wonderful lakes and rivers for fishing in which the only work is to go and catch the fish! Plus we then have access to this fish waste for fertilizer which we already make and teach how in one of our workshops!

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