Nunavut greenhouse could teach scientists how to grow food in outer space

The Canadian Space Agency says growing food in the North is similar to growing food in space. It's training people in Gjoa Haven to help research food production in harsh environments.

Food security research in Gjoa Haven is getting support from space specialists

The Canadian Space Agency wants to learn about growing food in harsh environments from residents in Gjoa Haven, who started growing vegetables in these sea cans last fall using solar and wind energy. Scientists say the community research could help them grow better food in space. (Submitted by Thomas Surian)

The Canadian Space Agency says growing food in the North is similar to growing food in space —  that's why it's joined forces with a community greenhouse project in Gjoa Haven to do research.

The Naurvik greenhouse is a hydroponic sea can station where community technicians have been growing vegetables since last fall. Now the federal space agency is hiring trainers to work with the Nunavut community to develop a curriculum for space-related food research in the North. 

"We want to bring the inspiration of space exploration and space technology to Nunavut," said Matthew Bamsey, an engineer with the Canadian Space Agency. 

The same technologies the community is using now will help scientists learn how to grow fresh food more efficiently for astronauts, and potentially even on the moon in the future, Bamsey said.

"This is really focused on maximizing the green stuff we can get with the smallest amount of resources," he said. "There can be a lot learned between growing food on the ground and growing food in space."

As a remote Arctic community with a harsh and rocky environment, Gjoa Haven is a great place to learn to do that, he said. With the proper training, residents will be able to do the research themselves.  

There can be a lot learned between growing food on the ground and growing food inspace.- Matthew Bamsey, Canadian Space Agency

A tender for the training contract closed this week; Bamsey says if all goes well, a contractor could be working with the community within the next few months. 

He says more technicians will learn to operate the greenhouse and keep the temperatures under control throughout the year. Those taking part will also learn the basics of space science. The curriculum, which will be co-developed with the community, will also include skill building so residents can expand the grow station. 

A crop of potted cherry tomato plants grown in the sea can station last year. Trainers contracted by the space agency will work with the community to build a space-related food growing curriculum. (Submitted by the Arctic Research Foundation)

Project could help astronauts too

A technician at the greenhouse in Gjoa Haven told CBC that the sea can greenhouse has lettuce and red peppers growing this summer.

The Canadian Space Agency is just beginning to take part in the work at the Naurvik greenhouse. It's new for the agency to be working in food production like this, Bamsey said. The change follows a new space strategy released last year.  

"The government of Canada is going to explore ways to help improve the accessibility of food across the country, including the North, with the aim of taking these lessons learned to help astronauts grow food off the Earth," Bamsey said.  

"In the future there is amazing potential to grow local crops and local berries."

The Naurvik greenhouse was started by the community and the Arctic Research Foundation, as well as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Naurvik means "the growing place" in Inuinnaqtun.

The project is small now, but the concept is to bring freshly harvested produce to the North throughout the year, and create jobs at the same time. 

COVID-19 travel restrictions considered, in the future there could also be an opportunity for trainees at the greenhouse to visit the Canadian Space Agency in Quebec.

Naurvik technician Betty Kogvik harvests the first lettuce grown at the Naurvik greenhouse. She is keeping the station going this summer. (Submitted by the Arctic Research Foundation)