VERTICO FARMS: ADAPTIVE PRACTICES FOR A RESILIENT FOOD SYSTEM
Building resilience within our province’s food system by strengthening access to nutritious produce in the face of climate change
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Vertico Farms Inc.
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Michael and Guy Rubino - Strategic consultants for Vertico Farms, The Rubino brothers have had many reputable culinary establishments in the city, and their own culinary show. They have come on board to support the development of our vision for a decentralized and sustainable food system in Ontario.
Bamford Produce - One of the largest and most reputable wholesale produce producers and distributors, and additionally one of the largest importers of produce in Ontario. They have embarked on an ambitious venture with the Rubino brothers called Roots Revival. Their goal is to create a 3,500 square foot facility using Vertico systems to produce their own brand of leafy greens and herbs.
Our research team at OCAD University: We partnered with a group of systems designers from the Ontario College of Art and Design to support us in establishing connections throughout our food system, mapping out our key relationships and visioning our growth and development.
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area, within the Golden Horseshoe (Southern Ontario)
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Boaz Wu (CEO & Co-Founder) & Enoch Wu (CFO): We first came to Toronto in 1999 as immigrants. In the beginning, we had lived in various neighbourhoods before settling in North York. Toronto and GTA allow you to feel completely secure and comfortable in your culture one day and then be immersed in a completely foreign on the next. Even though our family mostly stuck to the Asian food we were accustomed to, we soon began to explore and experience many different kinds of cuisines and the unique taste that Toronto had to offer. Our parents constantly reminded us that our food was a privilege, we needed to appreciate our fortunate position and wasting food was frowned upon. This lesson has stayed with us to this day and acts as a foundation for our business. When learned that the world was producing more than enough food, but wasted almost ⅓ of it, we saw vertical farming as a critical part in moving us towards a more sustainable future. We believe in vertical farming not only because it reduces food insecurity and waste, but because it connects more people to their food.
Olivier Buer (Co-Founder): I grew up in a family that prioritized nutritious and unprocessed food, we would support local entrepreneurs and find organic food products. Even without a car, my parents would travel further distances for fresh and nutritious food. They felt that quality is vital to a healthy life, and this is a value that I brought with me to my role at Vertico Farms. Now that I live in the city, I am constantly amazed at the different flavours that can be found and the abundance of foods from around the world. With the growth of Toronto and the GTA, food prices have only risen, especially for those seeking fresh and organic produce. I see vertical farming as the city’s biggest supporter, bringing new agri-businesses in the different neighbourhoods, ensuring no one has to travel in search of healthy and nutritious produce.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Toronto at a glance; The population in the City of Toronto is 2,732 million, with the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) at 5,928 million. Regional food production in Toronto is concentrated in the Greater Golden Horseshoe outside of the GTA. The primary crops grown include soybeans, corn, alfalfa, wheat, and field vegetables. The primary produce grown include grapes, peaches, carrots, sweet corn, and apples. The Golden Horseshoe is covered primarily by forest and farmland, with a protected Greenbelt located through the center. A humid and continental climate, the Golden Horseshoe is experiencing changes in biodiversity, health and water sources with increased climate changes. Ontario’s population overall is 85.1% urban, and 14.9% rural. The broader agri-food sector provides approximately 57,000 jobs and generates $2.7 billion in GDP.
Toronto as we see it: The city of Toronto was built on the traditional territory of many indigenous nations. As a settler city, Toronto is considered one of the most diverse cities in North America. There are four key system influencers that have informed our Vision –
Welcoming New Canadians: In 2017, Toronto welcomed 60,000 newcomers to the city. With the rising number of immigrants and refugees, the City has adapted its infrastructure to accommodate the rising need for social services and housing, food and employment support. This has added to the growing need for produce that meets the needs of the cultural diversity of Toronto and the GTA and has placed greater pressure on the city’s social services to provide affordable food for incoming families.
Urban Holdem: Winner takes all cities are emerging as economic powerhouses, with smaller surrounding cities struggling to keep up. With the influx of people into the urban centers of Toronto and the GTA, northern communities and family owned agri-businesses are struggling to maintain growth and longevity. Within the urban center itself, knowledge workers continue to drive up the cost of living, and service workers struggle to afford basic amenities, including fresh produce. In 2019, Toronto was ranked the 10th most expensive city to live in.
The aftershocks of Reconciliation: As Canada continues to build truth and reconciliation with our Indigenous nations, food remains core to supporting flourishing Indigenous economies, cultures, health and well-being. Canada’s legacy of colonization is felt within the northern indigenous communities of Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. Northern communities and indigenous communities rely on the distribution from Ontario’s Food Terminal, getting produce that travels hundreds of miles to very specific areas.
100-mile diet and a culture of convenience: A food movement of local eating and demand for ingredient origin, paired with our growing mental model of convenience and efficiency. Restaurants and local markets are committed to ensuring their produce doesn’t travel far distances, culinary leaders stress the value of fresh, and eaters demand it with a click of a button.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Impacts on Food Production:
Loss of arable land, and continued reliance on pesticide
Popular produce items like garlic, squash, and tomatoes have been labelled as “extreme” scarcity in the Ontario Bondi Produce report in January 2020.
With a reliance on imported food, produce is harvested early to reduce expiry and continues to lose its nutritional value as it is transported long distances. This disproportionately impacts our city’s most vulnerable.
Smaller, family-owned farms are struggling to maintain the business and land as there are not enough Ontario residents willing to work in agricultural centers, and perform low-paying labour roles.
Migrant workers or temporary foreign workers have been a critical part of Canada’s economy, but their working conditions are precarious and sometimes even dangerous.
Farm Credit Canada is one of the only lenders focused solely on agriculture. Farmers are reliant on bailouts for maintaining machinery, challenging their ability to pivot to new technologies. FCC does not lend to vertical farming projects because they feel it is not a proven process.
Impacts on Food Processing:
High transportation and fuel impacts: With an excess reliance on imported food, the province is subject to high fossil fuel emissions.
With rising climate changes and inconsistent growing seasons, farmers rely on pesticides and GMO processing to ripen fruit and vegetables.
Impacts on Food Distribution & Access:
More than half of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted, report says. 58% of all food produced in Canada – 35.5 million tonnes – is lost or wasted.
With heavy reliance on imported produce and GMO grown food, the produce that reaches grocery has lost some of its nutritional value. Additionally, food-insecure neighbourhoods who rely on the produce from food banks or discounted grocery are receiving even poorer quality.
Healthy and nutritious foods remain out of reach to many northern remote communities due to cost and access, despite federal subsidy programs. The average cost of groceries for a month in Attawapiskat in June 2015 was $1909, compared to $847 in Toronto
Public transportation is critical for food access for a large number of people in Toronto, especially people with low incomes. It allows people to purchase groceries, eat out at restaurants or reach food banks.
The Ontario Food Terminal imports almost 60% of its produce and relies heavily on precise logistics to ensure undisturbed access to the diverse produce needs of Toronto. Import countries like Mexico, California and Europe face worsening effects of climate change, they not only face shortages but challenges with travel logistics. The rising risk of flooding and dangerous driving conditions are making roads, tunnels and bridges critical points of vulnerability for food distribution.
Changing climate is putting a strain on the hospitality industry, with our partners the Rubino brothers sharing that the cost of produce has increased by almost 33%, while quality continues to decrease.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Growing vertical allows indoor farms to reduce their total environmental footprint, while increasing yields to offset higher initial investment and operation costs. The use of land is reduced as the produce carriers in Vertico’s farming system can be stacked as high as a building allows - thus producing the same yield with a fraction of the land. Vertical farming uses significantly less water than traditional farming. With vertical farming units in urban centers, the environmental impact associated with food transportation is vastly reduced. Finally, food waste is reduced because the shorter travel time to retailers means bruising and oxidation is minimal. The recycling of nutrients and water means that water usage is reduced by 90-95%. Eutrophication is eliminated by recycling nutrient water until it is consumed by plants and during maintenance cleaning the nutrients are fed through the local wastewater treatment facility and does not end up directly in the environment.
Quality of Produce
With indoor vertical farming, every environmental factor that affects how a plant grows is controlled. That means changes in weather and climate do not affect the plants. Pest and pathogen control is also significantly easier in a controlled environment thus eliminating the need for pesticides. Vertical farming also addresses the major loss of nutritional value in produce after harvesting due to respiration and enzymes by shipping the produce with the rootball still attached, allowing for the plant to continue absorbing water. Shorter travel times from Vertico’s farms to retailers and consumers means much more nutritious produce. Vertico’s custom lighting regimen, tailors the growing environment so that plants can consume more energy. The system provides constant irrigation at a much higher flow rate with constant aeration to keep the roots active. Vertico’s nutrient mix is designed to give hungry plants everything they need in an intense environment.
Access to Food
Vertico Farms will enable access to nutritious produce while using existing infrastructure and a small amount of land. Having access to fresh produce in urban centres will also reduce Ontario’s reliance on imported food, thus increasing the food system’s resilience in the face of climate change and unpredictable travel conditions.
Vertico Farms does not focus on growing produce ourselves, instead, we partner with organizations to provide end-to-end management of their system. We provide data analysis, training and education, as well as maintenance. Vertico sells a turnkey system to system buyers, and our strategic partnerships allow the system and its yields to be accessible to all communities. We've been building partnerships with universities and community centres to enable urban farming to flourish.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
We believe that vertical farming is a catalyst for food transformation. Our goal is the development of a self-sufficient food system that provides equitable access to nutrient dense produce. We believe that food can act as a lever for change in our communities.
To illustrate our vision, we ideated on a simple question: How are we making dinner in 2050?
Meet Fatima, a mother of two, a recent newcomer to Toronto. She’s lived here for the past eight months without her husband Nabil. Nabil joined her 3 months ago.
Fatima gets home at 4:30PM after working at her condo building’s food co-op. She pays for her produce from the co-op, through exchange for working there twice a week. It was the first thing the settlement agency suggested to her when she moved here. Although quite settled into her new job, she enjoys the community and the friends she’s developed. Growing produce from back home is a source of comfort when she’s feeling homesick.
Their co-op has been one of the most popular in the city, with its hand blended Za’atar spice mix a favorite among local restaurants. With co-op’s in each of the ethnic enclaves across the city, Toronto is quickly becoming the hub for R&D in vertical farming in war-affected countries.
With recent success in growing apricots, Fatima was thrilled to surprise her kids with their favorite dessert, although their tastes had changed significantly since they moved to Toronto. Vertical farming has engaged eaters in growing more than ever before. With produce so close to home, and newly released nutrition outline - our ability to track and evaluate the nutritional value of our produce has grown exponentially. Now, Fatima’s kids have experienced a whole new focus on food and nutrition, and they constantly lecture her.
She gets a message from Nabil, who’s taking an extra shift in the micro-delivery arm for Uber. He manages the shifts when he can, as he waits for a micro-loan from Shopify to come in for his new agri-business.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
We believe that vertical farming can be a catalyst for food transformation in the city of Toronto and the greater Toronto area. Our goal is the development of a self-sufficient food system that provides equitable access to nutrient dense produce. We envision a food system that connects Torontonians to the diversity of the city; that eradicates excess waste and energy use from food production and distribution; and finally, one that is strong in the face of climate change and provides for all citizens.
As experts in vertical farming system engineering and advancement, we’ve positioned ourselves as partners to different actors within our food system. We are leveraging dynamic knowledge sharing and diverse expertise to design custom systems for every type of grower. Our partnerships enable the scalability of our vision, as we work with restaurant owners to shorten their supply chain, university campus groups to improve research and introduce them to new employment, and real estate developers to create mixed-use real estate investments with farmers markets. This will bring vertical farming across the city - closing the gap between farm and table.
Our local and global environment:
In indoor vertical farming, every environmental factor that affects how a plant grows is controlled. Widespread adoption of vertical farming will reduce the strain on natural resources like water and reduce the impact of pesticides on soil erosion and local flora and fauna.
In 2050: There have been monumental advancements in solar power infrastructure to offset the high energy use of vertical farms. There is a significant reduction in international transport, as micro-delivery services support distribution of produce across the city of Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe.With the elimination of major pesticide use on exhausted Ontario farmland, we see an increase in arable land and greater land opportunity for tree planting and regenerative agricultural practices, and scalable biodiversity once lost to mono-cropping.
In the face of climate change, Toronto’s produce supply is now cultivated all year round; protected indoors, and supported through automated systems that detect algae, sickness or poor yield. Thorough vertical farming, we are able to scale quickly to meet demand, there is limited waste, and restaurants and grocers can access what they need and only when they need it. Food sites will be dispersed throughout the city, with families and low-income community members travelling less to stock up during poor weather conditions.
The diets of all Torontonians:
We believe in sustaining the nutritional value of produce for as long as possible and reducing harmful practices of early harvesting and pesticide use. Our strategic partners will support us in building a decentralized system for healthy produce, ensuring full grow times and minimal transport time. Our growing process, nutrient blends and light spectrum ensure strong yields and maximum nutritional value without the run-off from harmful pesticides.
In 2050: With more accurate and robust data gathering , paired with robust knowledge from Ontario farmers, the Vertico team has improved taste, texture, value and shelf life of their produce. With continued advancement in Vertico’s technology, the variety and yield for their produce will have increased . Nutritional content is tracked, and consumers can see real time decline of nutrients between harvest and purchase. Social services supporting the highest-at-risk and vulnerable citizens worry less about nutrient deficiencies and obesity as produce is available through the system. As the trend of hyper-personalized and predictive diets continue, vertical farming will provide access to the diverse produce of Torontonians.
Our interdependent economy:
Our vision establishes new pathways for employment in agriculture, and a promising future for Ontario growers who have been farming for generations. We will establish stronger, more career-oriented roles within agriculture, and provide robust training. Through upskilling, the industry will become a more attractive employment opportunity. We will reduce the precarious work environment for migrant workers, but acknowledge the decrease in opportunities for migrant workers.
In 2050: The expansion of urban farms reduces our reliance on imported produce and allow commercial lenders and venture capital funds infuse smaller businesses with the capital they need to support their urban farm ventures. It will be easier to track demand because it is local, thus further reducing that risk factor. Traditional farming will exist, the variety of produce grown through vertical farming will continue to develop well into 2050. The growth and proven yields ensure a ramping up of investment by government entities and Farm Credit Canada, creating increased accessibility for these systems.
The Ontario Food Terminal will still play a role in the distribution and sale of produce and will transition to a research facility invested in preserving and distributing seeds. The OFT will be the support system for farmers across Ontario, focused on long term sustainability, knowledge transfer and future trends. Vertico Farms will build partnerships that support adoption and education on the growing of flourishing indoor farms.
Our diverse cultural landscape:
Half of Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe’s population identify as foreign-born, with the dominant belief that diversity is our strength. Thus far, the region has relied on imported goods to support the needs of our communities, to the detriment of quality and nutritional content. As a region, we embrace change and assimilate together differently, creating a place where individuals can celebrate their own culture all the while learning about another. This diversity allows us to develop truly representative R&D across all sectors. It creates a broad and inclusive array of talent, boosting innovation and entrepreneurship. It also places pressure on our food system to have fresh food from around the world to make all of the individual dishes and cuisines whether it be in restaurants or in the growing cultural restaurant industry.
In 2050: Vertico Farms supports the equitable access to culturally relevant produce that fills the diverse needs the consumers, but it harnesses the local food knowledge of the region. The demand for diverse produce, matched with cultural food knowledge will produce urban farming opportunities for newcomers and the cultural centers like Little India, Koreatown, Chinatown and Little Italy. The food system has been able to adapt to the needs of shifting population of the region, the population growth is still fueled by immigration and the food needs have increased. Instead of lower demand and more specialized produce being squeezed out of the system, they have been able to be grown closer to ethnic enclaves thus reducing the cost and increasing the access for newcomers to the region.
Vertico Farms has continued to innovate their prototype, producing two versions thus far with significant results. Vertical farming is a new and evolving technology that still faces significant hurdles as it gains traction. With high upfront costs, and continuous R&D needed for higher yields and variety of crops, the technology is promising and will scale through continued partnerships.
In 2050: We will reduce the high operating costs of vertical farming by investing in robotics and the automation of tasks. As our partnerships scale so will our company and system, ensuring that we meet the needs of the community and the space available. As even the most basic of technology is infused with sensors and cloud intelligence, we have more data points for tracking quality, and levels of information on the price, safety, sourcing and nutritional content of produce. Our tech sector is infused with the cultural diversity of our city, providing new opportunities to partner and improve our systems. With vertical farming evolving aggressively, it will prompt new innovations within food production such as energy sustainability, infrastructure opportunities, and growing techniques. Furthermore, the decentralized systems can uniquely position urban entrepreneurs looking to build faster, sustainable agri-businesses that streamline access to fresh produce.
Through equitable and evolving policy supports:
Historically, Ontario governments support farmers through forgiven loans and bailouts, but we believe that evolved policy making centered around resilience, waste reduction and local innovation are necessary and incumbent. Vertico Farms will play a central part in supporting actors in realizing the power of their role within our food system. We are building partnerships with housing developers, who are investing in Vertico Farms systems within their condo buildings and new restaurant developments. In 2019, the City of Toronto has created inclusionary zoning policies that require affordable housing units to be built along new condo developments. With the added investment in urban farm systems – we connect members to produce right in their backyard.
In 2050: Developments have mandated green spaces, with food co-ops supporting local employment and food access in all Toronto neighbourhoods. The City’s continued investment in energy infrastructure and sustainability have enabled Vertico Farms to build farms that are akin to any industrial size processing facility. City programs have evolved into micro-loans for agricultural initiatives, allowing communities to access Vertico software easily and enabling widespread accessibility in northern communities. Toronto has shifted its focus to becoming a global leader in vertical farming and urban agricultural practices, becoming a centre of learning for other 10M+ sized cities globally. Vertico Farms has assisted in shifting zoning, immigration and housing policies to consider the diverse nutrient and food needs of the region.
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