Feature Story | 9-Jan-2024

uOttawa scientists create sustainable, tech-driven fruit farming model

University of Ottawa

Canadians love strawberries – they are the second most imported fruit in Canada, representing approximately $750M in retail value. Yet Canadian strawberry production has remained stagnant over the past two decades, largely due to climate challenges that inhibit year-round production.

Recognizing this issue, a team of scientists and private sector partners, led by Associate Professor Allyson MacLean from the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Science, is set to revolutionize strawberry production in Canada.  

“Our approach will use a leading controlled environment agriculture platform, layered with compounding innovations for efficiency, margins, and quality. These innovations include photosynthetic optimization, growth-promoting microbes, and CO2 micro-capture-and-use technology,” explains Professor MacLean. “The team also plans to cultivate a blend of red and white strawberries, to be marketed as “True North berries”, radiating a distinctly Canadian vibe 365 days a year.”

The research began in July 2023 and is set to run until December 2024 in collaboration with Marina Cvetkovska, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Ottawa,  and Patrick Dumond, an assistant professor of engineering design also at uOttawa, along with four industry partners: Ceragen (Waterloo, Ontario), Fieldless Farms (Cornwall, Ontario), Vertiberry (Brussels, Belgium), and Skytree (Amsterdam, Netherlands). Most of the research will take place at uOttawa and on location in Cornwall and Waterloo.

True North Berries has already been awarded a $1M prize from the Weston Family Foundation’s Homegrown Innovation Challenge. By solving the interconnected challenges that come with growing berries out of season, this innovative process will serve as a catalyst for a range of solutions that can be applied to a broad array of other fruits and vegetables in Canada and around the world. Ultimately, extending the growing season for fresh produce in Canada will reduce the country’s dependence on imported fruits and vegetables, making our nation’s food system more resilient. Funds will be used to create an indoor growing system that can produce strawberries throughout the year to compete with imported, field-grown strawberries and to eliminate the need for pesticides.

The award-winning proposal incorporates several layers of innovation, such as the use of microbial inoculants, cool air technology, and bee-less pollination, which can be adapted to many crops that can be grown in indoor farms. These innovative measures will enable Fieldless Farms, and eventually all Canadian vertical farmers, to produce fresh strawberries at costs that can displace imports from the US and Mexico. A significant component of the research is focused on integrating sustainability into the approach, further promoting the project’s commitment to environmentally sustainable practices.

“Indoor farming is the future of Canadian agriculture, and this initiative is supporting the transition from traditional, outdoor, soil-based farming to a more innovative, tech-driven type of agriculture,” adds Professor MacLean.

More than just increasing strawberry production in Canada, the True North Berries initiative will contribute to a transition towards a more sustainable and food-sovereign Canada. 

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.