November 28, 2017

The Assimilated Canadian Diet

Canada is often touted as being the world's most multicultural country (Brennan, 2008). Further still, Canada's largest city, Toronto, is touted as the most multicultural metropolis (He et al., 2013). With most Torontonians having been born outside of the country, Toronto may be expected to champion its own culturally diverse food systems, yet against this depiction, Toronto, as with Canada, exhibits food assimilation (Alem et al., 2010). Although commonly associated with the west, the industrial diet has spread globally at the expense of the environment and people’s wellbeing (Aaron, 2014). In Canada, this phenomenon can be seen in the changing dietary habits of many newcomers (Bourdeau, 2010). Culture may be a cause but culture can also be a product. Whether it be out of convenience or affordability, people in an industrialized food environment tend to gravitate towards particular habits (Aaron, 2014).

Although the demand is ripe for a greater choice that better caters to the preferences and ethnocultural diversity of buyers, Canada remains food insecure despite already producing more than enough food. In British Columbia, its government emphasizes locally sourced food yet its legislation maintains export-based agriculture. Instead of cherishing locally grown diversity, access to fresh food options has been impeded by costs, availability, and a restrictive selection (Wittman, 2011). Beyond the inconvenience of lacking choice, there are economic and health issues resulting from this industrial complacency (Filson and Adekunle, 2017). Inadequate access to ethnocultural food can lead individuals, especially lower-income individuals, to seek unhealthier alternatives like processed products and less fresh produce (Bourdeau, 2010). For farmers and the food network abroad, this unmet demand has been a lost opportunity (Wittman, 2011). Adding to this difficulty is that there are often physical and language based barriers preventing immigrants from sharing their knowledge and experiences with others (Bourdeau, 2010; Filson and Adekunle, 2017). Although these problems are particularly problematic for the cultural diversity of markets, it also afflicts individuals that simply want a greater choice when buying groceries, eating out, or whatever the occasion may be (Wittman, 2011).

It is understandable that farmers may have concerns about taking on an unfamiliar crop. While some ethnocultural crops can be grown quite easily in North America, others cannot be viably grown in what is ultimately a foreign environment. Despite Canadian agriculture reaching gains topping any other industry in Canada, farmers have had their revenues squeezed by retailers and suppliers (Wittman, 2011). In addition to competing within the agricultural industry, farmers are now having to compete with developers and aggregate extractors for the same prime agricultural lands (Epp, Drake, & Caldwell, 2017). Farmers have also been given additional operating costs to meet ever-expanding environmental regulations while their incomes have stagnated (OMAFRA, 2016; Statistics Canada, 2014). If the supply is to diversify, it is imperative that these concerns be met through various support mechanisms. By anticipating potential competition between food producers in advance, farmers can make more informed choices while better serving consumers with fresher and more accessible food. The improvement of transportation between supply and demand can alleviate both ends of the food network by further increasing efficiency through a smarter distribution of food availability (Specht et al, 2014). Naturally, some of the demand may be too challenging to satisfyingly meet but in other circumstances, there are opportunities to benefit from. Although more work still needs to be done, there is already a large body of research and instances of people that have taken on such endeavours (Wittman, 2011, Filson and Adekunle, 2017).
When disseminating information to interested parties, it is important to properly communicate considerations regarding how susceptible a crop may be to microclimatic conditions, soil types, pests, diseases, perishability, and other factors. As demand is everchanging and agricultural output varies seasonally and regionally, proper dissemination involves assessing the costs-to-demands over different timescales. One of the biggest challenges in judging demand is the reluctance among consumers to express their desire for ethnocultural food. Many individuals can take it for granted that their preferences are not to be met on the perceived basis of such preferences being economically unfeasible or culturally incompatible (Wittman, 2011). If we are to evaluate unmet demand, this means reaching out to people through social media and cognizant policy initiatives. Whether consultation is top-down, bottom-up, centralized or decentralized affects the outcomes as well (Obregón & Waisbord, 2010). Organizational capacity, like farmers' groups, can be empowered by democratic means so that members feel more compelled to their organization’s efforts (Wittman, 2011). Furthermore, not all of the demand requires stocking retail shelves. Individual and community gardens play an important role in ensuring fresher and more nutritionally fulfilling diets. By empowering people to take advantage of co-operatively managed gardens, this can be especially valuable for urban areas that lack access to affordable fresh produce and individual garden space, yet still have an ample community of willing people (Walter, 2013, Adekunle, Cidro, Filson, 2015).

During my personal struggle of weight gain while growing up, others had simultaneously developed diabetes (Amed et al., 2010). Given how fundamental food is to society, the knock-on effects of healthier foods need to be better highlighted when bringing about change. Although I overcame much of my challenges in part by avoiding the industrial diet, a school mandated food component could have more proactively assisted me and other Canadians, as it does already in various countries (Holdsworth et al., 2012). Rather than an explicit endeavour, food sovereignty represents principles that can take on new meaning as knowledge is better understood and technology advances. By having the Supreme Court of Canada recognize that the Delgamuukw people’s hunting rights extend to modern technology, their food sovereignty was not restricted in time to the technology of signing (Wittman, 2011). As overcoming distance becomes less of a problem in the wake of new technological advances, other considerations could become more prominent for achieving food sovereignty (Specht et al, 2014). Whether it be animal wellbeing, Canadian farmers, migrant workers, or the distribution of agricultural wealth, the lack of food sovereignty afflicts everyone (Wittman, 2011). Furthermore, the reality of overpopulation and ecological changes has since made many of the historically sustainable food systems either no longer possible or grossly unsustainable (Reijnders & Soret, 2003). Ensuring food sovereignty means rethinking the supply chain so that food is treated more as a conscious democratic necessity. If food sovereignty is depleted, the ability of Canadian governments to enact change will also be less viable (Wittman, 2011).

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Stuart Filson, Graduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario, SEDRD, Canada
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