Why now?

Supporting new solutions that reduce Canada’s reliance on imported fresh produce and build the resilience of food systems

Background to the Challenge: the problem

Canada’s high dependence on imported fresh fruits and vegetables makes it vulnerable to shocks and food systems disruption, especially in a climate-changing world. A resilient food system is key to ensuring food availability, health, and well-being, as well as our ability to withstand such systemic shocks.

We are able to grow many fruits and vegetables in Canada; however, in large part because of our long winters and high costs of production, we import the majority of our fresh produce from other countries. This over-reliance on imports, coupled with growing public awareness of the need for sustainable and environmentally friendly growing practices, means there is a timely opportunity to improve Canada’s ability to grow fresh fruits and vegetables out of season at home.

Catalyzing innovative solutions that enable produce to be grown out of season will not only help provide healthy and fresh food year-round for Canadians, but also build the sustainability of the country’s agricultural sector for the long-term.

For both open-field farms and controlled-environment agriculture, extending the growing season requires solving a series of interconnected problems. The range of these problems goes from breeding of plants to improve resilience, to finding the right levels of temperature and light required, that can deliver cost-effectiveness and sustainability, and much more.

Canada is not the only country facing climate challenges, but its weather extremes and harsh landscapes combined with a long agricultural history and sound environmental policy make it an ideal testbed for innovation in food production to come to life. 

In this context, we are running the Homegrown Innovation Challenge to drive innovation in food production and support new solutions that reduce Canada’s reliance on imported fresh produce, build the resilience of food systems and help Canada deal with future uncertainty.

Finding a solution

As climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic put a renewed emphasis on localized food systems, now is the time to harness that momentum and inspire a new generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and farmers to take action through an innovation challenge process.

Delivered over six years, the Homegrown Innovation Challenge will create tangible opportunities for positive change by bringing together diverse collaborators, galvanizing strategic partnerships and inspiring an ecosystem of new solutions which will respond to the need for food-systems sustainability.

Competing teams are asked to:

Create and deliver a market-ready system to reliably, sustainably and competitively produce berries out of season and at scale in Canada.

By extending the growing season of berries, potentially introducing new berries not grown at scale in Canada, and ultimately revolutionizing the method by which they are grown, the innovation challenge process is expected to catalyze new solutions and have a positive multiplier effect across other crops, sectors, and geographies, building innovator, producer and business capabilities and capacities. 

Why focus on berries?

The Weston Family Foundation elected to focus this Challenge on berries, not because we ascribe special importance to the category of fruit, but because it represents an excellent test case: if innovators can achieve the objectives set out in the Challenge statement for berries, they will be well on their way to achieving them for other crops important to Canadians. That said, berries are important in their own right for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, we import a lot of them. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, in 2019 Canada imported nearly 270,000 metric tonnes of strawberries, blueberries and raspberries – with imports of these three berries representing nearly 10% of all the fruit we import. This arrangement is less than ideal, of course, given the perishability of most types of berries.

Secondly, berries are valuable: in 2019, the import value of the three berries cited above was over $5 per metric tonne and the export value was approximately $3 per metric tonne. Higher values for crops can give Canadian farmers more flexibility to invest in better means for production.

Thirdly, berries are highly nutritious, yet underconsumed by Canadians. A Harvard Medical School study found that the health benefits of berries – particularly for the heart – are optimized when certain berries are consumed at least three times per week.

However, as mentioned, we selected berries as the focus of our Challenge not only because they are a wonderful and important fruit, but also because figuring out how to grow berries anywhere and out of season will unlock solutions to myriad challenges, such as tackling pests and diseases, energy-efficiency, the right levels of temperature and light, and more. Addressing these problems will catalyze a range of solutions relevant to other crops – including more obscure berries that are native to Canada – reducing Canada’s dependence on imported fresh fruits and vegetables, and enabling a more resilient food system.

Moreover, by focusing on this clear, important, “moon shot” goal, the Homegrown Innovation Challenge will be a high-profile opportunity to get Canadians thinking and talking about how we want our food to be produced.