Tech called a game-changer for ag

A cattle feeding operation from Alberta says it uses technology to track calves from birth until their meat ends up on grocery store shelves. | File photo

Food companies are using technology to push boundaries and make production more sustainable, reliable and secure

Compared to cattle, crickets punch far above their weight as a source of protein.

“There’s a biological organism that is arguably the most ancient source of protein that humans have ever consumed in recorded history that has the most efficient feed-to-protein conversion and that is insects,” said Muhammad Ashour, co-founder and chief executive officer of Aspire Food Group.

“Animals are often not very efficient at converting what they eat into protein biomass. The cow needs to eat about eight kilograms of feed to give you one kilogram of protein. With pigs it’s about five to one and with chickens it’s about 2.5 to one.”

Aspire is building what it says is the world’s first fully automated cricket protein manufacturing facility in London, Ont.

“A cricket only consumes about 1.3 kilograms of feed to give you one kilogram of protein,” said Ashour.

To harness what Ashour describes as tremendous biological efficiency, insects need to be grown at scale and that means an automated or manufacturing approach to insect production.

About 80 percent of the world’s citizens consume insects as part of their diet, he said.

“In most of these countries, insects are only harvested from the wild when they’re available seasonally. So if you go to a place like Oaxaca, Mexico, grasshoppers or chapulinas are only available for about three months in the year and then they’re hand harvested, which ironically makes them more expensive than beef, chicken and pork combined.

“That’s because the demand is so high relative to the supply,” he said.

Aspire is using climate-controlled technologies and data collection to understand insects and optimize their production from generation to generation.

“If we can modularize that system of production using automation and robotics, we could arguably build the densest and most sustainable protein production system on the planet,” Ashour said.

He was one of four panelists who discussed how technology is changing agriculture and what it means for Canada’s food system. The discussion was part of a recent webcast hosted by the Globe and Mail and moderated by senior editor Ryan McDonald.

The other panelists were Barry Murchie, president and chief executive officer of GoodLeaf Farms in Guelph Ont., Kendra Donnelly, managing partner with Korova Feeders near Acme, Alta., and Shanika Abeysinghe, co-founder of Bessie, an ag-tech start-up.

They described the ways they push boundaries to make food production more sustainable, reliable and secure.

As a fully automated vertical indoor operation, GoodLeaf Farms grows leafy greens year-round.

Growing levels are stacked several layers high and have many crop cycles per year. Use of LED lighting allows it to produce more per square foot.

The operation consumes less than five percent of the water that is used in outdoor farming, requires no pesticides and has a growth cycle time half that of open field farming.

“At this point, Canada imports something north of 90 percent of their leafy greens and the vast majority of that comes from southern California and Arizona,” said Murchie.

“Fundamentally, there’s an enormous opportunity in Canada to become more self-sufficient.”

Food sovereignty, which became an issue during the pandemic, and greater control over food safety are other advantages, he added.

“From a food safety and food security perspective we have set the bar at sort of a different universe where we are testing every single crop that we make. So it’s local, it’s grown sustainably, it is more nutrient dense, longer shelf life. It’s just a better way of growing leafy greens.

“We are in the process now of creating a network of these farms across Canada that would dramatically shift Canada’s ability to become self-sustainable in leafy greens. And then as we go further, we’ll be able to grow into other types of crops like berries and vines and things like that.”

Korova is a cattle feeding and farming operation that Donnelly said uses technology to become more efficient and sustainable.

Calves are tracked from birth until their meat is exported to different markets or the local grocery store.

“That traceability just allows us to understand, collect data and information on how can we improve, how can we utilize fewer resources but produce more beef. That is the ultimate goal when you talk sustainability,” she said.

Donnelly said there is opportunity to pair traditional beef producing operations like ranches or feedlots with greenhouses like GreenLeaf.

“We are looking at how do we utilize manure in the most efficient way. Manure has always been paired with crops. We spread manure on our land to fertilize our soil to produce more high-quality grains such as wheat or barley for food production,” Donnelly said.

“But we see an opportunity to actually put a biodigester, produce renewable natural gas and Co2 that needs to be injected to a greenhouse, all while still having the nutrients that we can spread on the land around us.”

Abeysinghe manages marketing for the direct-to-consumer brand Bessie Box and the Bessie App.

Bessie was established in 2019 and began working with one small-scale farmer to package and sell naturally raised Alberta beef directly to customers.

Abeysinghe said the goal was to simplify the supply chain, lower the cost of getting food from the farm to customer and retain more profit for food producers.

“It was just a straight e-commerce consumer brand and what we stumbled upon was a bigger problem, which was how farmers, suppliers, producers actually get to market and the complexity behind it,” she said.

The company quickly recognized that software could allow farmers themselves to direct market.

The Bessie App streamlines the process, from inventory, customer communications and filling orders, so farmers can manage their direct-to-consumer business.

“With our software, which is being used by a few producers and farmers, what we’re learning is that by empowering them to own the customer relationship, whether it’s with an everyday Canadian or a restaurant, and also offering software that manages the complexities with inventory, we’re giving them the ability to scale and scale quickly through sales,” she said.

“At the end of the day, getting sales is what really matters for these farmers. For the everyday consumer, it makes them feel the value right away when you have that connection that’s directly to your farmer or any producer.”

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