Robots, blockchain, and high-tech plankton might soon be producing food for British Columbians.
The B.C. government last week announced $7.5 million in funding to support 21 agritech companies in the province. Agritech — a suite of technologies that includes robotics, artificial intelligence, and vertical farms — is a fast-growing sector, with analysts expecting it to reach about US$18 billion globally by 2022.
The province’s so-called “concierge” program will help connect these businesses to investment capital, navigate government funding programs, and find land — including protected agricultural land.
“The pandemic has reinforced the importance of food security and the role of the B.C. agricultural sector,” said B.C.'s Jobs, Economic Recovery, and Innovation Minister Ravi Kahlon. “The food system was feeling extreme pressure, and for us as a government, we want to ensure we’re pandemic-proof (and) able to produce the food we need to shorten the supply chain, so we don’t need to feel that pressure again.”
The recent announcement follows a controversial January 2020 report written by a provincial food security task force that argued B.C.’s future food security lies in agritech. Food advocates and academics in the province were unconvinced: By March 2020, they had issued a rebuttal noting social, economic, and sustainability issues with the approach.
Many B.C. farmers already struggle to make ends meet, in part because of the high costs of farmland. Few farmers have affordable access to arable land, and the rebuttal’s authors noted that allowing labs, manufacturing facilities, or other agritech infrastructure on the province’s limited and legally protected farmland could further push up these prices, making farmland primarily accessible to companies or wealthy individuals.
Beyond the farmland issue, the authors said that prioritizing expensive, energy-intensive agritech projects without offering equivalent supports for farmers using less tech-heavy sustainable farming techniques like agroecology would do little for B.C. food security or sustainability.
It’s a debate that goes beyond B.C.
Food is responsible for between 21 per cent and 37 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and is driving biodiversity loss. With the global population expected to exceed 10 billion by 2100, change is needed; whether agritech, agroecology — or a combination of both — is the solution remains unclear.
“There are places we can … create more sustainable agriculture and food systems using new technologies. We just want to approach them with caution and not assume they are solutions in and of themselves,” said Michael Bomford, professor of sustainable agriculture and food systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and co-author on the March 2020 rebuttal.
“I would far rather identify the problems and look at the best way to solve those problems then critically evaluate our success … I think it’s a mistake to identify a particular (agritech) solution and then get excited about that rather than figuring out what’s the best way to solve that problem. It might be new tech, it might be old tech, it might be ancient knowledge.”
"I think it’s a mistake to identify a particular (agritech) solution and then get excited about that rather than figuring out what’s the best way to solve that problem," said Michael Bomford, professor of sustainable agriculture @KwantlenU
For instance, some farming practices can boost carbon sequestration and biodiversity, he noted, while new research suggests smaller farms with a diversity of crops have higher yields per acre than industrial agriculture. Technology that can bolster these approaches — instead of inventing new ones — would have more benefits for less cost, he said.
“As we start to explore growing things in shipping containers, or in vertical farms — situations that a lot of people seem to get very excited about — (we need to) look at the full cost of supporting those systems,” he said.
“It’s important that we consider the entire picture of all the inputs going into a system rather than allowing ourselves to be blinded by what appears to be a massive increase in one type of efficiency.”
Others doubt a lower-tech approach can work.
“The technologies we’re developing will be able to drastically cut climate change (and) the impact on the sector … I think the future is going to be high-tech, fairly local, and plant-based, (and) I have no doubt agritech is the future,” said Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley and one of the authors of the January 2020 report in support of agritech.
While she acknowledged many of the technological leaps in agriculture that define our industrialized food system — artificial fertilizers and pesticides, or monocropping, for instance — have driven GHG emissions and biodiversity loss, developing new technologies isn’t the issue. Until recently, new agricultural technologies hadn’t been evaluated for their overall environmental impacts — but that is changing, she said.
“You have to look at what technologies make sense when you put sustainability into the mix … I think there’s a fear (of technology) from people who have never done hard labour (and) who romanticize a past that never existed,” where people had long-lasting and healthy lives on farms. That wasn’t the case, she said, with farm labour often brutal on people’s bodies.
“Any future that says a great portion of the population must go back on the farm, I’m not down for that.”
The rapid technological developments in agriculture over the past 50 years that have greatly contributed to the sector’s sustainability issues were created by bad policy, she said. Not bad technology.
“Looking at (agritech) as someone who studies futures, technology always wins,” she said. “The question then is we must … build sustainability in at every stage, because that’s what we did wrong over the last 50 years. It wasn’t the technology — it’s the lack of policies to guide outcomes.”
Still, Bomford remains unconvinced that policy safeguards to ensure new technologies reduce their environmental harm will do much. They may help to safely implement technological approaches to specific problems, but the agritech approach isn’t a “silver bullet” to our food system woes, he said.
“It’s (a question of) approaching problems with a variety of possible solutions as opposed to simply targeting new and exciting agritech,” he said.
Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer