The B.C. government is investing up to $3 million in a grant program to help increase sustainable and regenerative food production in the province.

The agritech grant program is part of the province’s economic recovery plan to accelerate the growth of B.C.’s agritech sector and help the province’s agritech companies grow and develop technologies to increase domestic food production.​

Grants of up to $500,000 are available to B.C.-based agritech and agrifood companies or agricultural producers, and the program is accepting applications till Feb. 12.

“With the use of technology, they will be better equipped to enhance B.C.’s food security, strengthen our supply chains and keep people healthy,” Ravi Kahlon, minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation, said in a press release.

Agricultural technology, or agritech, aims to improve farming by supporting regenerative agriculture and farm management practices that promote conservation and farmland rehabilitation.

Examples include agricultural biotechnology, farm robotics, drones, satellite photography and sensors, automated irrigation, pest and disease prediction or soil management, phase tracking, weather forecasts and lighting and heat control.

Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, says agritech will play a large part in climate change mitigation and adaptation over time.

“One of the only ways we can really make a dent in climate change is in the food system. And to me, that's about using agritech to localize production year-round, in intensive methods, so we can return more of the planet's land to primary forests,” Newman said.

Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, believes B.C. has great potential to be a leader in the agritech industry. Photo by University of the Fraser Valley

The agritech grant program will also benefit farmers and agricultural producers, technology companies, private investors, academia and all levels of government involved in food production, processing and distribution, thereby improving the farming industry.

A new $3-million B.C. grant program aims to improve farming by supporting regenerative agriculture and farm management practices that promote conservation and farmland rehabilitation. #agriculture

Countries like the Netherlands, Singapore, Taiwan and Israel are currently leading the agritech industry. And Newman believes B.C. has great potential to join the ranks.

“We have a lot of resources, we’ve got great people, we're a desirable destination for big tech companies. We need to move away from clinging to the past in agriculture and really embrace what we can do in the future,” she said.

Investment in agritech will also redefine what it means to be a farmer and help a new generation of farmers adapt to a high-paced, rapidly evolving agriculture industry.

“I hope it isn't a one-off, but that we see a series of investments because the jurisdictions that really lead this are going to play a key role in building a sustainable food system,” Newman added. “And I really want to see B.C. be a part of that.”

However, in a report prepared by the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, critics state purported advances in the agritech sector to mitigate climate change are unexamined and unsubstantiated and, therefore, have to be applied to farming with great caution.

In B.C. greenhouses, most emissions are associated with heating uninsulated structures during winter. Therefore, vertical farming for food production, which takes place in a highly controlled environment, can increase the demand for energy and its dependence in the agricultural sector.

It also reveals that soil-based production systems have consistently shown far superior environmental performance when compared to high-tech, soil-less production in terms of land, water and energy use as well as carbon and water footprints.

For example, greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-heated hydroponic greenhouses have been found to be about six times higher than emissions from soil-based farming operations producing equivalent products.

The report mentions that technological advances can improve agricultural practices and efficiencies and also lead to greater food production in B.C., but the primary cause of food insecurity is poverty and economic inequality. Therefore, it calls for food security strategies that can address poverty and economic inequality.

Abra Brynne, policy advisor for FarmFolk CityFolk, says farmers should identify their own needs, not tech companies with a pecuniary interest in selling their own products.

She has seen farmers all over the province innovating every single day by adapting what they've got and seeking out new technologies in response to the particular circumstances of their farm.

“There are certainly common issues and needs that arise across the province and across different sectors. It's really important that it (agritech) not be sort of an externally formulated concept but something that's genuinely going to meet a proven need on the farm,” she added.