Precision agriculture could offer a key pathway to help Canada reach its sustainable development goals

Jessica Galang
January 13, 2021

In the next decade, Canada will be tested on its ability to meet the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a pledge that was made alongside 192 other countries to hit 17 goals — among them taking action against climate change and combating world hunger.

Some experts argue that meeting those goals will require reimagining Canada’s agricultural infrastructure. Global food production is the largest driver of biodiversity loss, and 70% of global freshwater worldwide goes to agriculture. “In short, we have to do food differently,” said Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, in a phone interview with Research Money.

As key technologies improve, precision agriculture — using tech to grow crops more efficiently and reduce waste — could play an important role for Canada to reach its goals. 

“In all aspects, efficiency is going to be a key challenge,” says Louis Brun, CEO of Sollum Technologies, which develops a smart LED lighting system for greenhouses.

Bringing food closer to home

Allowing Canada to produce more from home can bring environmental and economic benefits. Julien Billot, CEO of the Scale AI supercluster, says that COVID-19 has shown the fragility of supply chains and “producing outside of Canada is a big issue.”

There are a few areas in Canada’s agricultural supply chain ripe for improvement. Due to Canada’s climate, many of Canada’s fruits and vegetables come from California, where it’s shipped into Canada using energy-intensive cooling systems to make it into stores. “In the process, we waste about 50% of what was produced,” says Fraser. “And we use a humongous amount of inputs and water.”

Leveraging biochar — a substance made from burning organic material from agricultural and forestry waste, called biomass — in soil offers promising applications for precision agriculture, as biochar can safely store carbon, which simultaneously reduces greenhouse gas emissions and acts as fertilizer, thereby reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and irrigation.

“It is crucial to support technologies that will enhance the production, distribution, and application of biochar to soils,” says Kunbi Adetona, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, whose work examines biological solutions for energy and greenhouse gas management in Canada. However, Adetona also notes that while biochar has been reported to reduce CO2 emissions and enhance crop production, the latter outcome needs to be further examined in Canada.

Controlling for sustainability

Precision technologies that allow farmers to control factors like temperature and lighting within greenhouses can help reduce this waste. They can also help keep greenhouses operating year-round, a capability that many greenhouses around the world, including in Canada, currently lack because many of them are not lit, says Brun. “That prevents, especially in northern countries, having year-round production,” he says.

Meanwhile, Vancouver-based Terramera, which has been developing a plant-based alternative to synthetic pesticides since 2010, wants to be part of developing an emerging generation of agriculture: vertical farming, which can produce more food within less space using natural and artificial light, and media like hydroponic systems to reduce the need for soil.

Travis Good, chief technology officer of Terramera, says vertical farming can help reduce carbon footprints associated with transporting goods across the country, and bring production closer to where it’s being consumed.

“We trained many of our machine learning models in a moving bench greenhouse, which is like a one-layer version of certain vertical farm plans, and can precisely monitor plant health and predict yield in these types of contexts,” says Good.

Vertical farming is still an emerging field, but it’s being strengthened in part by artificial intelligence, says Billot. With AI, farmers can “select the right crops and find the right recipe to grow them,” he says. “And second, the way LEDs have improved is going to select the right light for each crop. We’re really improving the efficiency of the process.”

Looking to the future

As technology-controlled factors like light and humidity improve, Fraser sees a future in building controlled agriculture facilities around urban centres for locally produced, year-round crops, integrated in urban composting systems and reducing the need for importing goods. 

“Not only can we create high quality, fresh produce for our local markets, we can be in control of the technological development and export of the technology,” says Fraser. 

While precision agriculture can play an important role in reaching sustainable development goals, it’s just one part in a much-needed agricultural overhaul in Canada. Adetona notes that precision agriculture and nitrification inhibitors can only reduce some nitrous oxide emissions in the agri-food system. 

Machine learning increases the potential for precision agriculture to make a big impact, but the opportunities are currently limited by the lack of data necessary to deploy AI solutions. 

“There's a big opportunity in the coming years to bring more intelligence in the greenhouse, by developing additional and richer sets of data,” Billot says. 

As Canada works towards its sustainable development goals, its ultimate aim is to hit net-zero emissions by 2050. Experts say that the government should create policies to encourage tech adoption among farmers if it hopes to meet clean policy targets, especially if tech adoption would result in profit losses.  

“Farmers would adopt agricultural practices that can reduce GHG if they boost or at least maintain crop productivity,” says Adetona.


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