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Canadian agri-tech tackles food insecurity with AI and automation

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According to Statistics Canada, 8.7 million Canadians – almost one in four (22.7 per cent) – live in food-insecure households

As climate change disrupts farming and threatens food security, Canadian agriculture-technology (agri-tech) companies are finding innovative ways to help with adaptation.

According to Statistics Canada, 8.7 million Canadians – almost one in four (22.7 per cent) – live in food-insecure households. Climate change is expected to exacerbate that problem, affecting growing seasons and production patterns in some regions, and damaging crops through extreme heat, flooding and prolonged drought.

Some of the hardest hit areas are remote, where food insecurity is disproportionately higher than other parts of the country. According to a report from Food Banks Canada, many regions throughout the North currently face transportation challenges due to variable climate conditions.

Northern exposure

That was the problem Benjamin Feagin Jr. was looking to solve when he and his partner, Fabian Prince Velez, launched AgriTech North, a vertical hydroponic farm and research centre in Dryden, Ont., in 2022. Mr. Feagin, who’s Métis, recalls the food insecurity of his childhood when produce purchased at the grocery store was so close to ripening it would expire overnight.

“This story gets worse as you go further off the highway,” Mr. Feagin adds. He combined his experience as a research scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy with Mr. Velez’s agricultural roots to build a vertical farm, promising increased access and a 25-per-cent price reduction of fresh produce for Indigenous communities in the far North.

But shortly after investing in the technology, Mr. Feagin quickly realized it didn’t live up to its marketing claims. “The costs of operating these facilities are just so high, and the systems have been economized to maximize energy to such an extent that they don’t perform how they claim to any more.”

AgriTech North pivoted to a “living labs” model, using the operating farm as a test bed for new vertical-farming technology. It began designing less expensive greenhouse exterior technology, a thermal and climate-management system to improve the interaction between air conditioners and dehumidifiers in vertical farms, and software for managing complex food systems in remote communities.

They’re also tackling an issue known as the “carbon gap” in northern communities. “If you’re growing in minus-40 degrees or lower you don’t want to bring that air into your farm because it’s going to kill your crops,” Mr. Feagin says.

Retrofitting resilience

Vancouver-based Verdi is applying the same high-tech approach to traditional farming, designing automation tools for climate-smart agriculture.

“Automation as it is today is very expensive,” explains Arthur Chen, CEO and co-founder of Verdi. “It’s complicated to install and use, and often single purpose.”

Verdi hopes to make farms – and food systems – more efficient, precise and climate-resilient by automating aging farming structures, such as irrigation systems, with software and intelligent devices, Mr. Chen says. “Think of it like transforming the legacy equipment on a farm into smart systems capable of making decisions.”

But you still need the carbon dioxide. “So we’re developing a new technology that can operate [in temperatures of] up to minus 60.”

Mr. Feagin says the ultimate goal is to create a net-zero, independent, year-round growing facility. “That is the holy grail for rural and remote community food sovereignty … especially being Indigenous owned.”

With Verdi’s software, a smart farm could autonomously manage water input for crops at a plant level as opposed to the current model, which is done at a field or farm level, reducing the management burden for operators.

Verdi works with some of the largest international growers of fruits, nuts and vegetables as well as major vineyards. “It doesn’t matter what they’re growing, as long as the outdated tools that they’re currently using are the same, we can attach to what’s already there and make it more efficient,” Mr. Chen says.

Bug problems

Bug Mars, based in Havelock, Ont., is innovating in a different realm of agriculture: insect farming. Nat Duncan, the company’s co-founder and CEO, started the practice a decade ago, losing her colony every time she tried to scale up. She realized other insect farmers might face a data deficit similar to her own.

“Insects don’t like when you’re around, so you can’t get accurate observations if they’re not behaving normally,” she says.

The company has designed Hexapod, software that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) alongside computer vision and sensors to improve and eliminate processes on insect farms – specifically crickets for human and pet consumption, and black soldier flies as a food for livestock – increasing efficiency and yield.

“Our goal is to get insects to be comparable to the cost of soy,” Ms. Duncan says. She views bugs as a potential solution to food insecurity, especially amid population growth in major cities. “I think vertical farms are great, but we also do need protein and we can’t really be farming cows in cities. So this is a viable option.”

Despite operating in very different worlds, AgriTech North, Verdi and Bug Mars share a belief that efficiency is a vital part of adapting to climate change and to preserving food security.

“The traditions and the practices that have existed for the past few decades will no longer work in this new normal, post-climate-change world,” Mr. Chen says. “It’s already here, it’s affecting farmers day-to-day.”

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