Aquaponics are growing up: Nutraponics and food security, sustainability, and sovereignty

Nutraponics Canada Corporation was established in 2010 and has been fully functional with their facility for the last two or so years. Following the vision of CEO Tanner Stewart, Nutraponics has both a physical and virtual presence: growing produce at a vertical growing facility in Strathcona County, Alberta, and providing 24/7 online support for facilities to whom their technology has been licensed and sold. Nutraponics uses state-of-the-art aquaponic technology, creating enclosed growing systems using fish and LED lights to grow high-quality produce. The company, according to the Nutraponics website, is “dedicated to the development and commercialization of intensive, small footprint, high-density, natural food crop production technology”. The following profile is informed by Nutraponics’ Lead Plant Scientist, Stephanie Bach, and will provide an overview of how the organization operates, the challenges and opportunities it faces, and how it’s a key case of supporting future food security, sovereignty, and sustainability for the regions in which it operates.

Background and organizational structure

In its 2250 sq ft facility, Nutraponics produces leafy greens and herbs, serving the Edmonton region and beyond, through the home delivery service The Organic Box. Future expansion may include serving Edmonton and area restaurants. Nutraponics is a product of the evolution of growing technology: the idea of aquaponics, and Nutraponics as a spin-off company, arose from the founders of Three Feathers Farms (cofounders of Nutraponics) wanting to grow their echinacea and rhodiola more efficiently. They experimented with everything from “growing outside, to growing in raised beds, to growing indoors”, and finally, aquaponic technology. Today, the land upon which Nutraponics is situated is still owned by Three Feathers Farms, and although both companies are at the same location, they are not otherwise associated.

Nutraponics’ produce is grown using a fully-enclosed aquaponic system, meaning that water and nutrients circulate freely throughout the system. Nutrients for the plants come from fish waste, the water is filtered through biofilters and transported directly to the plants. This water, high in nitrates from the fish, is then absorbed by the plants in the midst of optimised LED lighting. The clean water is then returned from the plants back to the fish tank. Because the entire system is modular and therefore easily modifiable, it means that each component can be tailored to the specific growing conditions required for various crops. The LED intensity, amount of fish, and many other aspects of the facility can be adapted to suit whatever is being grown. Overall, according to Nutraponics, their proprietary system “is the product of the innovative application of existing technologies, selected and combined to minimize operating costs and maximize plant production”. Plants grow quickly within the Nutraponics system because they are not subject to weather or pests, and are provided with free-flowing nutrient. According to Bach, this means that the plants grown within Nutraponics’ systems can produce significantly more secondary metabolites, so “everything tastes stronger, smells stronger, and is really intensely green. And that’s because plants are so babied in our system…[they’re] bursting with flavour”, which is in stark contrast to grocery store produce. This system is highly efficient and sustainable, and allows for year-round growing. Although Nutraponics is not certified organic, the system is naturally free from pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. In the system, Bach commented, “if you add a pesticide you’re going to kill the fish. So we technically have the inability, even if you wanted to, to use those products that are damaging”.  

Nutraponics around the world

From this facility, not only are leafy greens and herbs produced and sold, but the centre is a hub for research and development of the Nutraponics systems, which are sold globally. Due to the research that is conducted at the Ardrossan facility, the company is able to attract grant money from various levels of government, such as NSERC grants. Other support comes from federal Canada summer jobs grants, which have allowed Nutraponics to hire a summer student, who will help in production and research efforts. In terms of its organizational structure, Nutraponics is privately held and now has between 40 and 50 shareholders. It is governed by a board of directors, a five-member chief of staff team, and has four employees at the farm in Ardrossan. These four employees include Bach, the aquaculture manager, and two growers. Bach’s role within Nutraponics spans from client relations, to management of the research program, and “anything that happens on the property”, which she commented is a rewarding job requiring a diverse set of skills. “You have to know everything… [from] how the building works [to] how to fix the building. So if there’s a roof leak, guess who has to fix it? The farm staff. We don’t bring people out because we are the farmers”.

Additionally, a key aspect of Nutraponics is that it sells its systems to other users domestically and internationally. Not only does the company provide assistance establishing new facilities, but it also provides 24/7 support. According to Bach, facilities must be “shell ready”, and then Nutraponics “builds the inside component hardware”. In exchange for Nutraponics’ support, facilities pay a yearly license fee, and each is outfitted with sensor packages to monitor various indicators, such as “oxygen levels, nitrate levels, all of the micro and macronutrients in the water system”. These licensed facilities are responsible for hiring employees, which may include both high quality labour positions and expert scientists. The benefits to local economies are enormous; in regards to a New Brunswick facility that will soon open, Bach commented that these facilities produce “not only food, but also jobs 52 weeks of the year… so really, the recession-proof industry is food, because everybody needs to eat”. The New Brunswick facility, Stewart Farms, will be the first Nutraponics location outside of Alberta. Another benefit of the Nutraponics system is the ability to grow food in areas that do not have favourable growing conditions. The Cayman Islands, where a future Nutraponics facility will exist, is a country, Bach noted, where “you can’t grow anything...not only are they an island, but they’re a lava rock island so they don’t have soil. Everything is imported”. With the facility that will be built in Whitehorse, Yukon, these benefits also apply. Most of Whitehorse’s food is trucked in, and due to its northern location and the cost of transportation, food options and availability are not as substantial as more southern cities. Furthermore, the growing season in the region is very short, so the opening of a Nutraponics facility will mean a local supply of fresh produce all year. Nutraponics is partnering with North Star Agriculture and the Carcross-Tagish First Nation in this endeavour.

Innovation and the “3 S’s” of Food

Food security, sustainability, and sovereignty underpin Nutraponics’ approach to enriching regional food systems, the totality of which Bach feels is the most innovative aspect of the organization. In terms of food security, Bach commented that Nutraponics is “providing impoverished areas with fresh produce”, especially because this provision is year-round. The essential micronutrients provided by Nutraponics’ produce are also a key aspect of its enrichment of food security, as these nutrients can contribute to disease prevention, mental well-being, and a balanced and diverse diet. Bach supported this in noting that “we’ve come a long way with agriculture...we don’t have to eat like how our ancestors used to, based on seasons. Especially now that we’re growing indoors”.

Food sustainability is the second key aspect of Nutraponics’ approach to enriching regional food. Not only can the Nutraponics systems “refurbish old buildings…[the] system in itself is sustainable as well”. Compared to conventional arable agriculture, which utilizes irrigation and pesticides/herbicides, the Nutraponics system uses 95% less water (due to the re-circulation of water within the system) and requires no pesticides or herbicides. Any of the fish waste or compostable plant material that is produced by the system can be either reused within the system or removed and sold to other farmers. According to Bach, the fish waste produced by their system is beneficial for farmers because “fish is a cold-blooded species, it doesn’t have Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, stuff like warm blooded animals. So farmers can take that manure and spread it on their fields and not worry about contamination, especially if they’re growing things like sprouts”, which are often recalled for Listeria.

The final “s” of sustainable food systems is food sovereignty, which Nutraponics contributes to through building systems “in the middle of a city, which really brings food back into the hands of citizens...people are concerned about where their food comes from, and knowing the farmer”. Vertical growing spaces can be located in the heart of cities, which is ideal for feeding growing urban populations and connecting people to their food.

Opportunities, challenges, and future directions

Although, according to Bach, indoor farms are faced with many opportunities and are “really moving into the spotlight”, there do exist challenges. One challenge is a small degree of resistance to the idea of indoor, vertically-grown food. Bach largely attributes this to the fact that Nutraponics is at the very forefront of vertical and aquaponic growing, and so there will naturally be some people who take issue with the unconventional methods. “A hundred years ago, people were very resistant to greenhouses, and now every farmer has a greenhouse. So we’re in a similar position now”. Despite individual objections though, Bach does not see aquaponic and hydroponic technologies going away, especially due to increasing populations and areas that physically and geologically cannot support farming. “We can’t keep [transporting food] with airplanes and boats because the carbon emissions coming out of that are just up the wazoo”. Therefore, with the need to cut fossil fuel use from food transportation, Nutraponics provides a viable, locally-based solution. Another challenge is within the industry of aquaponic food production, which, according to Bach, has some collaboration between companies, but organizations are “not practically working together to find a solution....[they’re] all kind of reinventing the wheel individually”. Therefore, from this challenge of an overall lack of partnership comes the opportunity for similar companies to come together, share technologies, and build stronger linkages between the network of aquaponic and hydroponic producers.

A smaller challenge for Nutraponics, that the company has not yet faced, but has potential to become a future impediment, relates to “dealing with municipal codes” and other zoning barriers associated with indoor farming. Because Nutraponics has the aim of establishing some of its future facilities in abandoned buildings in city centres, prohibitive building and zoning regulations for their level of production could be an issue. Despite this, there is hope for establishing Nutraponics systems in urban centres in Canada from an unlikely source: cannabis legalization. With 2018 set to be the year that Canada officially legalizes and regulates cannabis, cities across the country will establish regulations and policies to permit growing facilities. Because the systems and technologies used to grow marijuana indoors are similar to that of Nutraponics, this may be an opportunity where policy enables expansion.

Expansion is key in Nutraponics’ short and long term aims. According to Bach, “our short-term goal right now is to get our facilities up and running, so the one in New Brunswick, the Cayman Islands, and Whitehorse...but also building another facility here, maybe in the heart of Edmonton or in the Edmonton area….raising our profile in this area”. Bach is a key proponent of spreading awareness about Nutraponics, as she attends many local food related events and is a member of various Edmonton food organizations and societies. Interest and awareness of Nutraponics is definitely growing, a large part of which is due to the extensive networking accomplished by Bach and other employees. At the Nutraponics facility in Ardrossan, research and development into the ideal growing system for fruiting crops will also occur. This will enable the cultivation of crops such as strawberries, tomatoes, and bell peppers through reorganizing the vertical growing tower modules to be ideal for these types of crops.

The long-term goal of the organization is to become a global network of state-of-the-art aquaponic facilities that prioritise information sharing and collaboration. Overall, there is extensive interest from a variety of individuals and organizations in Nutraponics and the technologies it provides - as shown by its growing number of shareholders, the increasing interest from its various organizational partners, and support from government officials and grants. Nutraponics faces the future with enthusiasm and a spirit of innovation. The company is ready for the next chapter in agricultural production: according to Bach, “greenhouses were the last phase of our agricultural technology, and now the next step for us is moving completely indoors, using artificial light to help with the growing process”.

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