Loblaw Companies Ltd. is supporting Canadian farmers with a new program it says will make shoppers less reliant on imported fruits and vegetables.
Canada’s largest grocery retailer plans to spend $150 million more a year with Canadian farmers by 2025, buying local produce that would otherwise be imported from trade partners like the United States and Mexico.
The company has also pledged to work with farmers to implement “innovative” growing methods and plant non-traditional crops in order to extend the growing season and bring the “Grown in Canada” label to fruits and vegetables that have traditionally been imported.
Canada was the world’s fourth largest importer of fresh vegetables in 2015, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, importing $3.07 billion worth of products excluding potatoes. It was the seventh largest importer of fresh fruit in 2016, bringing in $5.98 billion worth of products including $652.6 million worth of grapes, $541.8 million worth of bananas, and $506 million worth of strawberries.
Loblaw currently has a relationship with about 300 Canadian farmers, and says in season, about half of the produce in its stores is Canadian grown. Because of Canada’s short growing season, however, farmers have primarily focused on a “well-established” range of crops.
The company has been working with farmers for the past several years to introduce non-traditional items including bok choy, long eggplant, napa cabbage and okra that feature the “Grown in Ontario” and “Grown in Quebec” labels.
Loblaw says Canada’s short growing season and cooler climate means that consumers have grown accustomed to eating imported produce that is often picked well before its prime and travels thousands of kilometres by truck.
Loblaw has also pledged to work with indoor farmers and greenhouses to ensure a “steady supply” of fresh produce that would otherwise be out of season or imported from warmer climates for much of the year.
Through its President’s Choice brand, the company has developed relationships with greenhouse operators to source Canadian-grown berries from January through December. It also announced a pilot project with a vertical farm operation in Newfoundland that it says will bring “unprecedented” fresh greens to the province, which imports a whopping 90% of its food supply.
Vertical farming sees produce grown indoors in vertically stacked layers under LED lighting. It has been hailed as the new future for food production, because it offers year-round crop production with less land requirement and 70% to 80% less water use.
Ontario accounted for 55% of Canada’s field vegetable production in 2015, followed by Quebec at 33% and British Columbia at 3%. The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association did not respond to Canadian Grocer’s interview request.