Food insecurity in northern communities has long been a familiar theme in Canadian news reports. Inuit families in particular are facing significant challenges to accessing adequate food. A combination of low income, high food prices, changes in traditional food production and food economies, and lack of awareness of healthy eating habits are resulting in hunger, poor nutrition, and growing frustration.
Decreased consumption of traditional foods and the increased reliance on expensive imported foods will have long-term effects on the health and well-being of northern communities. Few initiatives implemented to address the problem have resulted in viable improvements for families or communities. However, Yukon College is aiming to make a change with the development of the Agridome.
The Agridome is a pilot project supported by Yukon College’s Cold Climate Innovation division and the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. A bright green plastic dome, measuring 314 square feet, has been constructed in Whitehorse to house plants grown using aeroponics. Inside the insulated, energy-efficient dome, the temperature is around 20 degrees and plants are stacked vertically along a pyramid reaching eight feet high. The roots of the plants grow towards the middle of the pyramid and are exposed to the air, where they are sprayed with a water and plant food mix. The water is then collected into a reservoir to be recycled and used again. A high-pressure sodium 1,000-watt lightbulb is reflected towards the plants by the Mylar-lined the walls, and there are more than 25 temperature sensors to measure efficiency. The dome can support approximately 600 crops at an estimated total cost of $90,000.
Improved Food Security
The dome is still in its testing stages, but project manager Glenn Scott has been able to cultivate tomatoes, peppers, peas, cucumbers, squash, herbs, leafy greens, and cabbage. The goal for the dome is to operate on less than 30 hours per month, using less than 5,000 litres of water and 1,800 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Stephen Mooney, director of the Cold Climate Innovation division points out that high efficiency and low cost is critical. “The project isn’t worth much if it doesn’t lower the cost of growing food. People have proven you can grow tomatoes in the Arctic, but it costs thousands of dollars.”
This past winter in the Yukon was warmer than usual and the dome will have to be further tested to ensure it can operate under normal winter conditions. However, it has proven to support plant growth in minus 35 degree weather, and like any pilot project, it will continue to be tested and changed.
Glenn Scott hopes that the Agridome will prove successful enough to be used in communities throughout the Yukon, and remote communities across the North. His aim is to dramatically lower food prices in the North to improve food security and end the hunger crisis. “What I would like to do,” says Scott, “is give people control. I want to give people control of their own food supply by demonstrating an effective way of producing your own food.” If successful, the dome could not only stimulate local production, but also increase self-reliance and empower communities to improve food security and end hunger on their own terms.