SFU research to bring fresh, local blueberries to B.C. markets in winter

March 27, 2024
Jim Mattsson and Mostafa Mirzaei inspect blueberry plants in the SFU Biotech Greenhouse. The team is trialling several different varieties to see which hold the most promise for indoor farming.

Everyone looks forward to the summer, when fresh, local berries are in season – they just taste better.

With $1 million in support from the Weston Family Foundation as part of the Homegrown Innovation Challenge, an interdisciplinary team of Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers led by SFU Biological Sciences professor Jim Mattsson is working with B.C.-based agritech company BeriTech Inc. to develop new plant varieties and precision indoor growing techniques for producing fresh, local blueberries during the off-season.

The Canadian blueberry season runs from July to the end of September. For the rest of the year Canada imports nearly half a billion dollars of blueberries from countries such as Mexico and Peru.

These berries have a higher carbon footprint than local berries and are typically four to five weeks old by the time they reach Canadian grocery stores. Like other imported produce, they are vulnerable to shipping delays and other supply chain issues that can result in spoilage and shortages that undermine our food security.

A home-grown solution to this challenge needs to be both energy efficient and profitable for farmers. Mattsson’s team is exploring how biotechnology, advanced physiological methods and precision indoor growing techniques will help maximize plant productivity while minimizing water and energy consumption.

“Vertical farming is primarily done with leafy greens and recently with strawberries, so this is quite a leap to go to something like blueberries,” explains BeriTech CEO Rodrigo Santana. Blueberry plants have complex needs for nutrition, pollination and pruning which means that so far no one has been able to successfully grow them indoors at scale.

Mattsson explains that while field blueberries have been bred to take up space, indoor varieties will need to do the opposite, while still producing high yields. “We have the expertise in genetics now to do rapid and targeted breeding of blueberries to get a higher yield out of a smaller plant,” he says.

Biological Sciences student Emily Lucas checks on blueberry seedlings in the lab.

Selecting the right variety of plants will be key. “We’re trying to find the world’s best southern highbush blueberry varieties to adapt to indoor production conditions,” says Eric Gerbrandt, chief science officer of BeriTech, “and we're working with two of the world's leading breeding programs.”

The first round of growth trials are underway at BeriTech’s research farm and at SFU. The research team is evaluating selected blueberry varieties under controlled environmental conditions to better understand how factors such as temperature, lighting and airflow can be used to enhance their growth.

“If you have an indoor environment, you can tell the plants when to produce leaves and when to produce flowers and fruit,” Mattsson says. “You’re not dependent on the season and weather. You can change the light intensity, day length, and temperature to get the full potential of different blueberry varieties.”

The research team will also be exploring ways to use resources more efficiently, reducing water and energy use and recycling fertilizers to reduce waste.

Mattsson's lab is working on rapid and targeted breeding of blueberry varieties to achieve higher yields from smaller plants.

They are also planning to introduce a brand-new category of food to Canadian consumers, with support from Beedie School of Business professors Terri Griffith and Andrew Harries.

“People don’t think enough about the innovation in agribusiness, and how that innovation feeds the world. What I think is especially interesting is the role that marketing plays in how we think about the food we eat,” says Griffith.

For now, consumers will have to wait before they find indoor grown blueberries on grocery store shelves. Testing system prototypes and scaling up production will take approximately four years, but the team has formed relationships with Fraser Valley berry growers who are eager to extend their growing season.

“We’re very excited about this project,” says Santana. “There is a market for fresh berries that are superior quality and more sustainably grown compared to what we see in grocery stores during the winter.”