In this edition of Disruptors: The 10-Minute Take, host John Stackhouse and co-host Trinh Theresa Do discuss the rising cost of food, and how agtech innovation could hold the key to sustainable, and cost-effective food chains. They’re joined by guest Dave Dinesen, CEO of BC-based CubicFarm Systems, and learn why the company’s vertical farming technologies offer a promising solution.

Episode Notes

For more information on CubicFarms’ indoor farming technologies, please visit their website.

Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hi, it’s John here.

Speaker 2 [00:00:04] And it’s Theresa.

Speaker 1 [00:00:05] So, Theresa, I’ve got to start with a personal question. What did you have for lunch today and do you remember what it cost?

Speaker 2 [00:00:11] It was a packaged salad from the grocery store and it cost about five dollars, which is about the same price it usually is, although the amount of greens I got was much less than I remember. I feel like every trip to the grocery store just hurts my wallet a little bit more, and I feel like I’m making more trips more often.

Speaker 1 [00:00:28] It’s one of the stories for almost everyone on the planet in 2022. Rising food prices. Of course, there’s a number of factors global inflation, supply chain disruption, the horrific war in Ukraine. But we’re seeing whole countries. I’m thinking of Sri Lanka and Pakistan going into political crises because of this and other countries like Yemen and Somalia unable to get wheat, or Brazil where farmers are struggling for fertilizer. So this is a massive global challenge that everyone is feeling

Speaker 2 [00:00:57] pretty much every day. That’s right. And meanwhile, in Canada, food price inflation is up seven percent compared to last year. And by our RBC’s count, it means that the average household is spending at least $500 more on groceries and fruit this year and likely closer to $1000. And that’s thanks to meet cost. It’s much more expensive than it was last year. I definitely do not see myself having a barbecue feast anytime soon. John, you recently spent some time in B.C. and met with farmers and agricultural leaders while you were there. What did you

Speaker 1 [00:01:27] learn? Yeah, I got to travel. It’s quite remarkable to be on an airplane again, but I was in Vancouver and then went up the Fraser Valley to Abbotsford, which people will remember was the center of devastating floods last year, and the impact is still very much felt. You can see fields of blueberry bushes and crops still ruined. And you know, one farmer told me about his struggle to get his cattle back on the farm. He had moved them out for a cow sitting, I guess you’d call it somewhere and he can’t get them back because all the housing for his farm workers has been destroyed. So it’s going to be a long time for recovery. And that, of course, is hard enough for the farmers and people of the Fraser Valley. But it’s having a ripple effect well beyond there in terms of prices

Speaker 2 [00:02:16] at seeing all that damage firsthand and must have really struck a chord and really doesn’t leave us well positioned for future needs with population growth. We’re going to have a billion more people to feed in just a matter of a few years, and we’ll have to produce so much more food than we do now and find ways to do that with lower emissions. It’s increasingly a global crisis, this food insecurity. So what can be done?

Speaker 1 [00:02:36] This may be Canada’s greatest opportunity of the 2020s to produce more food, to export more food for a hungry and divided world, and somehow to do that with fewer emissions. It’s kind of our space race. I got to meet some interesting AG tech producers when I was in B.C., and we’ll talk to one of these real innovators in the space. This is disruptors the 10 minute take. Today, we’re joined by Dave Dinesen, founder and CEO at Kubik Farms. Dave, welcome to the 10 minute take.

Speaker 3 [00:03:08] John, great to be here.

Speaker 1 [00:03:09] Dave, let’s start with the problem that you’re trying to solve. What? What is

Speaker 3 [00:03:12] it? So Cubic Farms is a local chain agtech company, and we develop technologies that let you grow commercial scale amounts of food for people and actually feed for livestock as well. And you can do it locally, anywhere on Earth, 12 months a year and at commercial scale.

Speaker 1 [00:03:29] And how does this play out? Can I have a feedlot in my backyard with this kind of technology?

Speaker 3 [00:03:34] Well, this technology really is ideal for commercial scale, so our cubicle farm technology grows, for example, salad products and other leafy green type products. And it’s really designed to be next to a distribution center that’s already going to grocery stores or other communities anyway as it grows an enormous amount of produce in a relatively small amount of space. So instead of having to bring truckloads of salad products in from California or Arizona, we can now grow at commercial scale right across the country and near major centers.

Speaker 2 [00:04:06] And Dave, what makes this technology a viable alternative or supplement to traditional farming?

Speaker 3 [00:04:11] So the real thing that enables that is it’s very energy efficient. So we can grow a lot of produce indoors 12 months a year in a completely contained environment. And we’re leveraging LED lighting technology and we’ve built an enterprise platform that lets us manage the growing cycle so that you can literally get the most amount of food possible out of the smallest amount of space, energy, water and labor, which all of these things have to be combined. And then you can do that locally so that you don’t have to import it anymore and then no more pesticides and herbicides and things like that. So they’re delicious. They’re good for you, and they’re much better for the environment.

Speaker 1 [00:04:53] Most Canadians probably don’t appreciate that, you know, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of our overall emissions can. Be attached to food production and distribution, so we need to think through how, in fact we do produce, distribute and consume food in a more sustainable way. I’m intrigued that you mentioned the challenge of imported, especially vegetables and fruits, because as food security becomes more of an issue of national security in a lot of countries, we may not be able to depend on the global movement of food as we have in years, even decades past, which means we in Canada are going to need to scale things like vertical farming pretty quickly. Dave, what will be some of the big challenges in scaling up what you’re doing?

Speaker 3 [00:05:38] I think that the technology now exists and it is ready for prime time. So because we are now able to grow at commercial scale locally and produce vegetables at a price that is very similar to importing them on a cost per meal basis because you have far less waste and things like that, it is now ready for prime time. So some of the things that I think Canada can do is make the regulations be much more friendlier to enable this. So just for example, we gave, you know, subsidies for green energy. We should be providing subsidies or land use permits to enable this type of farming to happen and happen quickly. If we’re going to invest in a windmill, we’re going to invest in solar. We should be investing in the infrastructure that lets us grow our food locally. And so government policy is going to be absolutely key in having that happen.

Speaker 2 [00:06:30] And Dave, what are the types of crops and produce that can be grown with that today?

Speaker 3 [00:06:34] So within the cubic farm environment, we grow all of the solid products herbs, microgreens, lettuces, those sorts of things. And our hydro green technology grows live green animal feeds. So literally growing grazing land fodder indoors so that you can feed dairy cow beef cow 12 months a year with fresh green feed and the animals would not only perform better, you use a fraction of the water less than five percent of the water, but the animals that actually emit significantly less methane because they’re able to absorb that feed much more efficiently. So the technology is ready. We just need to support it. I think as a country and get behind it.

Speaker 1 [00:07:13] Dave, does this change the geography of food production and farming? Are we going to have food production essentially, if not in our backyards, at least in our communities or closer to our big population centers?

Speaker 3 [00:07:25] We need to have it close to our big population centers because we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. California is in a mega drought and it can’t keep exporting all of its freshwater in the form of produce. We’re going to have to do that locally. We can’t keep burning all those fossil fuels transporting all of this food locally. So there’s a food security, a localization and environmental. And then of course, people don’t want to be eating things like pesticides with their food. And so to be able to address all of these issues with this technology. The good news is, is it doesn’t have to cost more. It’s available now and it is time to scale up and we have to do something. One of the things that you mentioned earlier, Teresa, was that we’re going to have a billion more people with our population is going to nearly double in the next 40 years. But as a planet, we’re already using 100 percent of the world’s freshwater that’s available for human consumption and agriculture. We’re using all of our farmlands now, but we’re losing farmlands to soil exhaustion, climate change, urban creep, all of these things. So we’ve got to be able to do far more with the water in the land that we have, and we can’t just keep importing things from far away. So all of these things have come together at this moment.

Speaker 2 [00:08:37] What do you think consumers should be thinking about when it comes to their choices? And how do we get them to adopt a more local model?

Speaker 3 [00:08:43] Well, the good news is, is that it’s actually better tasting. So I don’t really think there’s many barriers other than now creating enough volume locally of locally grown produce and getting it into the existing supply chains that already exist. So I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult to make the switch. We just need to have enough of it grown locally and people will happily switch because boy, once you taste something that’s come out of a cubic form, you can’t go back.

Speaker 1 [00:09:12] Dave, you’re making me want to have a salad like you did for lunch. But for now, thanks for being on the 10 minute take. My pleasure.

Speaker 2 [00:09:20] So, John, the future of indoor farming looks extremely promising, and it takes advantage of our underutilized industrial complexes on the periphery of our cities. That sounds like a great idea to me, especially in the face of more volatile, growing seasons and all the other reasons we’ve just talked about more consistent crops, more nutrient rich foods, better tasting foods, lower carbon footprints. What’s not to like?

Speaker 1 [00:09:40] Well, I’m also thinking about the export opportunity of the technologies that are involved. We we tend to think of food exports as being tankers full of grains and other food products, but maybe we’ll be supplying AG technology to the world in the decades to come and helping people wherever they may live produce. Their own food more sustainably. Maybe there’s a future episode in there for us, but for this week, that’s the 10 minute take

Speaker 2 [00:10:05] and join us again next week for episode one of our special three part climate series. Until then, I’m Theresa Do.

Speaker 1 [00:10:12] and I’m John Stackhouse. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 4 [00:10:17] Disruptors: The 10 minute take is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by Jar Audio. For more disruptors content like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit rbc dot com, slash disruptors.

Jennifer Marron produces "Disruptors, an RBC podcast". Prior to joining RBC, Jennifer spent five years as Community Manager at MaRS Discovery District and cultivated a large network of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and partners to support the Canadian startup ecosystem. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, Financial Post, Techvibes, IT Business, CWTA Magazine and Procter & Gamble’s magazine, Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @J_Marron.

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