Imagine if every Canadian had ready access to fresh, locally grown food. This is something that small groups of people in Canada’s major centers and southern regions take for granted, however it would be a game changer for people living in Canada’s Northern territories, in particular First Nations people. While “fresh” food (or rather, food that hasn’t spoiled yet) is delivered to many northern communities, most of the nutritional value has already been depleted by the time it reaches people’s dinner plates. This is primarily because of time passing since the food was picked, processed and shipped to it’s final destination.
As Canadians it’s currently very difficult to FEEL IN YOUR BODY what it’s like to have fresh, nutritious food available to us at all times. From March 12 to April 12, 2018 I was very fortunate to have this experience. During that period I spent my time eating the healthiest, freshest food I’ve ever consumed while taking a Permaculture for the Herbalists Path Course and Fungi Academy Course in Punta Mona, Costa Rica. My goal with taking these courses was two fold:
- Heal my body/spirit after a bladder cancer surgery;
- Understand how to blend my knowledge of green building, control systems and commissioning with growing fresh local food using Permaculture methodology
I’m happy to report that I’ve accomplished both.
While it’s unfortunate that Canada’s climate doesn’t have the tropical heat of Costa Rica’s climate, we still have the ability to grow a great deal of fresh food without implementing an environmentally destructive, mono-culture model.
Depending on where in Canada one resides, our access to fresh and local food varies greatly. This is an issue that deserves attention and investment. If planned and considered thoroughly, communities can integrate northern food security into a sustainability plan that allows them to be as close to self-sufficient as possible.
While I believe all Canadians, and people all over the globe should be concerned about food security, I believe that people living in Canada’s North have particular incentive to improve our food security by growing vegetables and mushrooms in energy efficient, controlled environments. This is possible now for the individual, but we should strive to take this to a community and even regional level through proper infrastructure funding and development.
Northern Food Security for the Individual/Family
It is already possible for the average person to grow certain foods within a regular home, if you have the space. Multiple types of sprouts and leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale and other greens could readily be grown in existing homes and commercial buildings if the proper lighting, irrigation equipment and the proper care and attention are present. While this may not be viable for every household, it could certainly be done on a community level if a properly designed/commissioned facility with well trained and dedicated attendants present.
Doing this on a community level creates the opportunity to scale into higher energy intense foods such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cauliflower and broccoli. When provided fresh and free from pesticides, these foods last significantly longer and are incredibly healthy for humans. More variety of food allows for a greater variety of receipts and even creates the possibility for creating a community restaurant or kitchen to feed nutrient dense meals to the local population on a regular basis.
Implementing such a project in a northern community has many benefits. Not only would people have access to higher levels of nutrition, resulting in lower rates of disease (or rather dis-ease) such as diabetes and cancer, but people’s energy levels and quality of life also improve. This reduces health care costs while improving the productivity of people with access to this food. On a national level, this could and should be considered an essential investment because it reduces spending on the things that we want less of, namely sickness. In addition, providing year-round fresh food security at the community level could be an economic driver that provides employment, skills development and a sense of pride and accomplishment in communities with little economic activity.
From a technical standpoint there are certainly challenges, particularly around energy given the harsh climate of Canada’s North. However these would primarily be addressed in the same ways that energy usage in housing or commercial buildings would be addressed. Namely through high levels of insulation and minimal usage of glazing, at least within the winter production areas of the facility. Insulation types would necessarily prevent moisture condensation and accumulation in the building interior and within a wall assembly to ensure that the facility remains operational for many years and at minimal operational cost.
Heating for a large scale facility would largely be accomplished by utilizing the waste heat from lighting equipment. Extra heating could potentially be provided by capturing the waste heat from diesel power generation, garbage incinerators, geothermal sources or from the waste heat of other buildings. In heavily forested areas, biomass heat from burning dead-fall or beetle-kill trees is another viable option that creates a local market for a readily available, local fuel supply. Utilizing these fuel supplies would effectively make a facility carbon neutral. All of this could be designed with a relatively simple control system that would provide adequate heating and lighting to the areas in which specific foods are grown and cultivated.
If a permaculture mindset is applied to the design and layout of such a facility, the waste products of specific crops become the food for other crops. This interdependence between species is how nature is able to provide an abundance in ways that mono-culture systems fail to sustain (without the addition of expensive external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides). Aquaponic systems could also be implemented to feed animal scraps to fish, whose fesses becomes food for the plants. These fish can eventually be harvested to be eaten locally or sold to an external market.
To take this a step further, if a composting plant food scrap system was designed and implemented properly, the food waste from a kitchen or the garden could be used as a passive source of heating a home, the greenhouse or a public building. As food waste decomposes, it creates heat which reduces the need to burn fossil fuels or provide heat through other means. The result is a closed loop system that provides heat to a building while creating nutrient rich soil that could be utilized in a greenhouse or garden. Great compost is highly beneficial for growing nutrient-dense vegetables and edible mushrooms.
To build a facility such as this, extensive expertise will be required by the design, construction and commissioning team. Since this type of facility is a rare application for a mechanical designer, it will be essential that the control systems that operate the building are designed, installed and commissioned properly. To do this, a commissioning agent (technical adviser of the owner) should be engaged to ensure that the design meets the owners long-term objectives while ensuring that operators are trained to operate equipment correctly and hence operate the facility correctly.
Commissioning agents also ensure that components are installed and operating correctly prior to the completion of a project. Successfully bridging the gap between controls systems, commissioning, green building and permaculture is a skill set that will be necessary for these types of projects to succeed. If you or your community is involved with or interested in such a project, I’d be interested to speak with you.
In summation, a well-planned, year-round community food-building ( insulated greenhouse) would provide so much more than essential nutrients to humans. It provides jobs, wellness, education, hope and a better life. These are the qualities that would make such a project truly Future Proof™.
To read more about my thoughts on Northern Food Security, check out this post I wrote on April 14, 2012 about the importance of why we should prioritize year-round local food production as the effects of climate change take fold.