This team based at the University of Ottawa seeks to produce True North Berries, which can be grown anytime, anywhere in Canada. Key to the roots-to-shoots approach is a proprietary vertical-farm platform that is turbo-charged by the use of genetically engineered microbes and a carbon dioxide micro-capture and use device.
True North Berries: Food sovereignty through additive innovations with a Canadian twist.
“What I really love are plants and microbes and studying how they interact with each other. It blows my mind,” says Allyson MacLean of her passion for the microbial realm.
Symbiotic interactions between plants and microbes—bacteria and fungi—have been the main focus of Dr. MacLean’s Symbiosis Lab at the University of Ottawa, creating a body of research that the lab is leveraging to advance biotechnology. “I try to tap into that knowledge in a way that benefits farmers and industry,” she says, “so it’s not just learning, but putting an applied angle on it.”
The project’s public-private partnerships bring together researchers from the University of Ottawa with Cornwall-based Fieldless, a controlled-environment agtech company that grows greens indoors 365 days a year, using renewable power and no herbicides or pesticides. Dr. MacLean met CEO Jon Lomow three years ago and they have been looking for a reason to work together ever since. “Jon is very pro-research and innovative. He is committed to applying cutting edge science to his farms and prioritizes sustainability.“
“There’s such potential for sculpting the microbiome to help plants grow.”
The True North Berries project takes a holistic, roots-to-shoots approach to growing strawberries by layering a number of innovations targeting each part of the plant’s functions. Starting at root level, specific microbes will promote plant growth and temperature resistance, a cost-effective way to boost productivity. Dr. MacLean will collaborate with Ceragen, a Waterloo-based startup focused on microbial inoculants for hydroponics. Together, they will explore how bacteria could serve as beneficial microorganisms that improve the productivity, taste, and health benefits of strawberries. “I am most excited to identify microbial inoculants that are specific to strawberries,” Dr. MacLean says. “What are they? Can they be leveraged to other crops? There’s such potential for sculpting the microbiome to help plants grow.”
Dr. Marina Cvetkovska, a colleague of Dr MacLean and a fellow biologist at the University of Ottawa, will help identify light recipes to improve photosynthesis in the leaves to promote faster growth under optimized conditions. Dr. Patrick Dumond in the faculty of engineering will tap into his expertise in vibration and acoustic design to develop a beeless pollination system—using mechanized vibrations to mimic buzzing bees—to lower the growing system’s environmental impact by easing the strain on pollinators, while also reducing costs. “The combination of these innovations can deliver the yields needed to achieve cost parity with imported berries all year long,” says Dr. MacLean.
Brussels-based Vertiberry is designing the project’s core growing system, adapting a proven vertical-growing platform that will harness the Canadian climate to maintain appropriate growing temperatures—a process known as free cooling. The system will also be equipped with carbon micro-capture technology developed by Amsterdam’s Skytree, which extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to deliver to the plants inside the farm and displace what would typically require a fossil fuel–based process.
The goal of the True North Berries team is to find a combination of innovations that will make indoor, locally grown, year-round strawberries able to compete head-to-head with imports across Canada. “We are running out of farmland and we’re a cold nation,” Dr. MacLean says. “Vertical farming and indoor agriculture are going to be play a significant role in the future.”
- Jon Lomow, Fieldless
- Danielle Rose, Ceragen
- Marina Cvetkovska, University of Ottawa
- Patrick Dumond, University of Ottawa