Controlled environment agriculture can reduce fertilizer use and make all agricultural production much more environmentally friendly
When we look at climate change, the future for many seems to hold only short-term despair and long-term disaster. Will humans be able to survive, let alone prosper?
Before we let today’s doomsters depress us, let’s look at an earlier apocalyptic forecast. Around the turn of the 19th century, Thomas Malthus predicted the end of the world because of population growth. Food production, he felt, couldn’t keep pace with the rising number of mouths to be fed. Famines and depopulation would result.
Reality proved to be different. Two hundred years ago, in Malthus’s time, there were one billion people on Earth. Today there are almost eight billion and rising. But far from facing starvation, the vast majority of people enjoy a standard of living that couldn’t even be imagined in 1800. Productivity in agriculture and many other sectors far outpaced population growth. Although the poor are still with us, their share of the population has fallen dramatically.
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Two books document reasons for an optimistic outlook. One is Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. His optimism is based on reason, science and humanism, which he says have generated progress in the past and can continue to do so.
In Open: The Story of Human Progress, Johan Norberg sees the free flow of people, ideas and goods as leading to our advancement and enabling us to deal with the challenges presented by climate change, just as we have dealt with earlier problems.
We still have to deal with climate-related challenges, and we’ve begun to do so. We no longer drive the gas-guzzling land yachts that filled the roads in the past. We light our homes with a fraction of the power the older incandescent bulbs needed.
We still have a way to go, but with both attitudes and technology advancing, we will get there.
The climate change problem won’t be solved by fiat. We can’t just pass a law to make greenhouse gases (GHG) disappear. If that was the way the world worked, we should have passed a law against the common cold a long time ago or, better yet, passed a law against COVID-19.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t realized this sad fact. Since agricultural fertilizers generate GHG, his government is in the process of passing a law to reduce the use of fertilizers by 30 per cent.
This will reduce GHG. But it will also raise agricultural costs, significantly reduce food production and cause some agricultural operations to go out of business. Not just farmers will be affected. Everyone who eats will see a reduction in the quantity and variety of food. And what’s available will become ever more expensive. These price increases will be in addition to the current budget-breaking food inflation.
From June 2021 to June 2022, total food prices rose 8.8 per cent. The prices of many common food items rose more, including dairy products (15 per cent), pasta and produce (20 per cent), pork and chicken (25 per cent), and some cuts of beef (37 per cent).
The government must be serious about cutting GHG to create such a negative effect on our food costs and supply. Yet, in other areas, emissions don’t seem to matter. Air travel by Trudeau in June alone put as much GHG into the atmosphere as 20 Canadian households, including their vehicles, over an entire year.
There’s a way to reduce fertilizer use and make all agricultural production much more environmentally friendly: controlled environment agriculture (CEA). By using enclosed spaces, multi-levels and computer-measured amounts of water, fertilizer, light, etc., output can be significantly increased, and pollution of all kinds – from GHG to water runoff – can be reduced or eliminated.
One acre of land using traditional agriculture can produce 10 tonnes of strawberries a year over the 80-day growing season. Applying what we know about CEA to that same acre will produce 125 tonnes of strawberries a year over a 300-day growing season.
Implementing CEA across Canadian agriculture is possible. Farmers will have to be brought up to speed. Equipment will have to be made or bought, and skilled people will be needed to maintain and run it. All this will take time and money, but it will lead to a productive, competitive and very green agricultural sector.
We already see some components of CEA in operation in certain parts of our agri-food industry.
If the government wants Canada to be clean, green and well fed, it should work with the food sector to provide the financial and human capital needed to apply CEA. We would face a bright future and offer a positive example to the world.
Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.
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