Weston foundation launches innovation hub in bid to enhance food security

The Weston Family Foundation, named for the family behind the Loblaws grocery chain and Weston Foods, is set to make the announcement Tuesday.DOMINIC CHAN/The Canadian Press

The family behind some of Canada’s most iconic food brands is spending $33-million to bolster the country’s food security.

The Weston Family Foundation, named for the family behind the Loblaws grocery chain and Weston Foods, is set to make the announcement Tuesday. The funding will focus on innovation in sustainable agriculture – specifically, finding new technologies to grow fruits and vegetables year-round in Canada.

At the start of the pandemic, the foundation was looking for ways to help everyday Canadians, chair Tamara Rebanks said. “We wanted to do something larger that would get at the underlying issues of the pandemic and help Canada as we come out of it to build resilience,” she said.

After extensive consultations, she said, one issue seemed to rise above all others: food security. Specifically, they heard concerns about the vulnerability of supply chains and grocery-store shortages in the early days of the public-health crisis, in March, 2020.

“Food kept coming up – particularly our dependence on imported food,” Ms. Rebanks said. It felt like a challenge the foundation was uniquely situated to tackle.

“For us as a foundation that’s been going for 60 years and has a specific focus on healthy aging and healthy landscapes, food resonated with us because food fits squarely – right in the middle,” she said.

More than 80 per cent of Canada’s fruits and vegetables are imported. Much of that comes from the US – a reality that has been on full display throughout the pandemic. The threat of border closings in the spring of 2020 and the recent implementation of a vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the border have raised concerns about access to fresh produce.

Canada’s reliance on the US for so much of its fresh food – and the long, fragile supply chains that facilitate it – has long been criticized by researchers and experts. Still, harsh climates, a limited growing season and the high cost of production have left Canadians with few affordable options.

The money from the Weston Family Foundation will be used to create a six-year “challenge,” in which teams will compete to come up with the best plan to grow berries in Canada – year-round and at scale.

In 2019, Canada imported 270,000 metric tonnes of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries – about 10 per cent of all the fruit imported that year. The foundation and its advisers are hoping the unique difficulties of growing berries will mean the winning solution may be applicable to other crops as well.

“The industry in Canada needs a spark,” said David Karwacki, the chief executive of Star Produce. Mr. Karwacki was the chair of the advisory group that worked with the Weston Family Foundation to develop the idea.

Much of the current technology behind Mr. Karwacki’s greenhouse producing operation comes from the Netherlands, he said. “When I need something, they fly it over from the Netherlands. Or they fly someone over from the Netherlands to show us what to do.”

While there is a culture of innovation in this country, he said, the last crucial piece – creating technology and products that are commercially viable and affordable for consumers – is what this challenge hopes to address.

“Integrating the technologies in the labs of Canadian universities and having those folks partner with growers in this country to come up with new solutions – that, to me, is really exciting,” he said.

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