Deborah Henderson likes to think about the Cuban capital of Havana when she goes in to work. Not the music or the beaches, per se, but the vegetables and the gardens. “Over 75 percent or more of the vegetables consumed in Havana are produced within the city,” claims Henderson. As the director of the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture (ISH), based at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Langley, B.C., Henderson is inspired by how Havana has turned urban raised-bed gardening into a viable food source for its population — without pesticide use of any kind. At the helm of North America’s first research laboratory devoted to biological pest controls, Henderson and her staff aim to prove that with a few strategically placed insects and fungi, cities such as Vancouver could soon be doing the same.
Initiated five years ago, ISH was created to partner with horticulture-based companies across British Columbia to investigate issues around ecosystem and environmental sustainability in the industry. Hired in the second year, Henderson relied on her own experience as an integrated pest-management consultant for farms in the Fraser Valley to refine these research goals even further.
In terms of sustainability, what could the horticulture industry use that her research lab could provide? “More biocontrols in the hands of growers,” says Henderson. Currently, if a grower needs to target a particular pest in a particular season, the only available product is a chemical pesticide. Biocontrols — insects and fungi that prey on the pests which harm the plants — exist, but getting them to market has proved challenging. ISH wants to change that. “Our research program is going to develop the products and get them into production,” she says. “It’s a fully integrated program, including research, development and commercialization.”
After securing some major infrastructure funding 2½years ago, the ISH team spent a year planning and a year in construction and opened its doors to the public in October. Construction continues, with the greenhouse scheduled for completion by the end of 2010, but the laboratory, including temperature-controlled rooms, incubators, test tubes, microscopes and potted plants, currently hosts a cross-section of pests and predators at various stages of research.
The first “guinea pigs to go through the system,” as Henderson describes it, are two fungal strains that attack pest larvae within soil. ISH researchers are looking at how to produce these fungi and how well they fight pests in laboratory trials. If all goes well, they’ll seek a permit to conduct research in the field, register the products and then — teaming up with Kwantlen’s School of Business — begin getting the fungi to the people who could use them.
“The future is not big farms; it’s smaller farms,” says Henderson, citing the rise in the price of oil and land as two factors contributing to this change. Like Havana, cities around the world will have to start using whatever land they can to grow food. “There are enough negatives that people won’t want pesticides in city limits,” she adds. “They’ll need biological tools to make urban farming viable.”