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Greenhouses can help food security in Canada's vulnerable North

Heather Exner-PirotEye on the Arctic

Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, issued a somewhat scathing statement of Canada's ability to provide food security to all of it residents, especially aboriginal and northern ones.

Nunavut MP and federal Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq rejected the Rapporteur's findings, calling De Schutter "an ill-informed and patronizing academic."

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, had a different perspective, saying that the assessment was especially important for "us Inuit living in the Arctic." (Ouch.)

Of course it won’t be of surprise to those Canadians paying even cursory attention to national affairs that aboriginal and northern peoples face significant food insecurity. Obesity and diabetes rates are high and climbing, country foods are playing a smaller part in local diets, and perishable goods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables are usually expensive and of poor quality.

Are greenhouses the answer?

One significant opportunity that has yet to be seized is the development of northern greenhouses that can grow fresh produce locally. There doesn’t appear to be a single, economically viable greenhouse producing food commercially in any of the three territories, or throughout the provincial north. Greenhouses in Inuvik, Iqaluit and Kujuuaq have been notable for their community spirit but not for their commercial success. Other greenhouses, such as in Whitehorse and Devon Island, have been funded by research dollars.

There are a number of reasons why northern greenhouses haven’t been adopted as a solution to northern food insecurity. The first, most obvious, is the high cost that running a northern greenhouse carries. The growing season is short, the winters are dark, and the weather is cold. Plants need heat and light to grow. And any community seriously interested in combatting food insecurity and promoting employment would pursue a 12-month, rather than seasonal greenhouse, because people lack fresh food the most in the winter. Using diesel generators as a source of energy is prohibitively expensive and would do nothing to bring down the cost of importing perishable goods from the south, as is the current practice.

Future viability

Technological advances will soon make northern greenhouses much more viable. Advances in biomass energy sources, for example, from wood and wood waste, would help solve the energy problem in the sub-arctic. LEDs will meet plant light needs using much less energy than was available previously. Better insulating materials -- or better yet, fully enclosed buildings that are independent of sunlight -- will cut down on the cost of heating. But whereas greenhouse technology is nearing perfection, human error will continue to be a major factor in the success of local food production.

From a socio-economic perspective, the challenges are many. Most northern communities have limited horticultural experience, and a well-run commercial greenhouse requires significant technical knowledge and experience. Almost all northern communities would be in the position of having either to bring in a manager or train someone from the community.

Then of course there’s the question of scale. It is possible to build a greenhouse that operates on biomass fuel, uses LEDs and is sufficiently insulated to operate throughout a subarctic or arctic winter. It is also possible to train a manager to run it. But how big of a market would such a greenhouse need to be economically viable? 5000? 20,000? Bigger than most northern communities at any rate, unless some kind of regional distribution plan was implemented.

Which brings in the question of marketing. If local greenhouses produce good quality fruits and vegetables, how will they sell them? Will northern residents make a special trip to the greenhouse to buy their fresh produce? If it is sold to local grocery stores for distribution, will their share make the venture unviable?

Northern diets

Finally is the question of diet. If lettuce is grown and sold at affordable prices, will northerners eat salad? Much of the food grown in greenhouses will have played a small role in northern diets to date. Research in southern “food deserts” have shown that food preferences often play a bigger role in diets than accessibility and affordability. Any successful food security initiative in the north will require a calculated public education component.

With all of these challenges, it is no wonder greenhouses haven’t achieved economic viability in the north – let alone become mainstream. But their benefits are potentially so numerous that I believe it is only a matter of time before they do. They contribute to food security, promote good health and provide an outlet for employment. A greenhouse would provide an exceptional learning tool in schools which traditionally struggle teaching sciences. There is also the therapeutic benefit that greenhouses would provide – a humid, light, green place would be a community oasis in the harsh environment of the Canadian north. One can imagine creative programs where seniors, Elders, or those suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome find a way to contribute in a community greenhouse.

At some point in the future, greenhouses are likely to be an important part of the solution to northern Canada’s food insecurity. But someone will have to be the guinea pig that learns the hard lessons that will enable success in others.

Good luck to the community that takes that first step.

This commentary is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.