Feeding the World

Big things are growing in southern Alberta — specifically, mind-blowing quantities of lettuce.

“When our expansion finishes in early 2019, we’ll have 11-plus acres of growing space under glass,” says Rindi Bristol of Inspired Greens. “Eleven acres is really nothing to marvel at when you talk about the scope of commercial pepper, tomato and cucumber greenhouses, but what is impressive is the production capacity that these 11 acres will be able to produce.”

The greenhouse uses an ultra-efficient, completely automated system to grow lettuce year-round and is located in Coaldale – a town of more than 8,000 people that sits in the southern Alberta prairies just 20 kilometres east of Lethbridge. Once the expansion is complete, production will increase from 9 million heads of lettuce a year to 20 million.

Inspired Greens is just one of a growing number of agri-food businesses that are finding success in southern Alberta.

“Our goal is total world domination,” says Dennis McKnight, CEO of the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta, an agri-food industry alliance formed in 2018 with a current focus of encouraging investment in processing plants. “Many of us have been waiting for our whole lifetime for this opportunity. It’s happening right now.”

Such sunny expectations are rooted in hard facts. The planet has a current population of approximately 7.5 billion people. By the end of this century, the global population is projected to top 11 billion. This roughly 50 percent growth in population presents a huge opportunity for food producers.

In addition to the growing global population that is creating optimism in the agri-food industry of southern Alberta, there are also currently less wealthy nations like India, China, and Ethiopia that are becoming more developed and consumer demand is shifting towards higher-quality food.

“World demand for high-quality food is going to increase by 70 percent by 2050,” says Peter Casurella, executive director of SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development agency that comprises 24 communities in south central Alberta across 18,605 square kilometres. “About 3 billion people are going to join the global middle class by 2100.”

So global demand for food, particularly high-quality food, is set to explode. Why does this excite the Casurellas and McKnights of southern Alberta? They believe the region is uniquely positioned to meet a significant portion of that demand and see significant opportunities for southern Alberta’s agri-food industry on the horizon.

“As we look at feeding the world, Canada truly could lead this space,” says Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge. “We have the tech, the capacity, the land, the reputation.”

Another factor is southern Alberta’s tremendous agricultural capacity. The region is home to the biggest irrigation system in the world, comprising 70 percent of Canada’s total irrigated land. The climate is amenable to growing a huge range of crops, which according to Casurella, continues to expand. “We can grow crops here that our grandparents couldn’t,” he says.

The region has also been an agricultural hub for well over 100 years. Its communities have a deep understanding of and appreciation for agri-food. This translates into Canadian food products having a sterling reputation around the world – even better, in fact.

“We’re seen as the gold standard in many markets, which certainly helps,” says Lewington.

Perhaps most importantly, various levels of government are working together to attract agri-food investment in the area and bring Canadian products to markets around the world. The catalyst for this was the federal government’s decision, announced in February 2018, to select southern Alberta as part of its “supercluster” program. This program will distribute $950 million in economic development funding to five different initiatives across Canada, including the “protein industries supercluster” on the prairies.

Casurella, Lewington and McKnight all report that the federal government’s plans for the region are broadly shared by provincial and local governments, and that everyone is pulling in the same direction. McKnight also says that the “supercluster” funding has helped the plant protein industry in the prairies raise $400 million from industry sources to further develop the region.

And the sky isn’t even the limit – it’s another opportunity. In early 2018, Lethbridge County agreed to transfer ownership of the Lethbridge Regional Airport to the City of Lethbridge. The decision helped persuade a second major airline to begin servicing the airport and the city is working on a development plan to attract further investment to the airport.

Expected return on regional economic developments like these are speculation at this point, but the federal government has made public its expectation that each “supercluster” will create thousands of jobs, and McKnight points to the recent explosion in the alternative milk market (think almond milk) for comparison.

“That’s an $18 billion market this year,” he says. “That’s how huge this is.”

As Inspired Greens has already shown with its high-tech conveyor-belt greenhouse that’s expanding from 9 to 20 million heads of lettuce each year – agri-food businesses in southern Alberta are growing.

“You could put up hundreds of these things here in southern Alberta,” says Casurella, “with guaranteed water supply and year-round growing conditions.”

It’s all enough to make you dream – perhaps – of world domination.