I was visiting my friends who are new to Canada on a rainy autumn afternoon.
As often happens when we get together, the discussion weaves its way toward food and in particular the nutrient richness in Canadian food.
“It is the soil, the air and the water that make such a difference,” my friend said.
I just could not walk away from a statement like that.
Agriculture is believed to have begun in 12000 BC in what is called the Fertile Crescent, which sits in the Mediterranean. It swaddles the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers and includes parts of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, northern Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
Today that breadbasket of the world is largely desert, dehydrated from irrigation in the 1950s followed by dams that drained critical marshes. For thousands of years this was home to not only wild wheat and wild barley, lentils and flax, but commerce and the arts. It was here that the wheel is thought to have been invented.
Over time, as people learned the basics of plant breeding and animal domestication, farming grew and by 9200 BC farming had been adapted in other countries such as India. Africans were farming by 5200 BC. Long story short, land has been farmed in small landholder communities successfully for thousands of years.
Canadian history reflects a new country with fresh soil that has been tilled for, at most, a few hundred years. From a historian’s perspective, our soil may be classified as virgin compared to many areas of the world.
It is interesting that soil degradation has not been a big issue on small plots in small communities because rotation and manure was part of the process. As populations grew and centralized and as trade routes increased, the need to produce more food put pressure on the land.
In cases where land was available, that was manageable. But in many areas of the world, the farmer is asked to produce more on the same-size plot. This drove the adoption of techniques that were not always fully understood or suitable to that land. Rotation is critical in most areas. Manure is gold. Understanding this as collaboration with the addition of science and technology is imperative.
Population growth and centralization also logistically challenged waste and water, air quality and food access. These factors are part of the value of the food produced near or for those areas, stored in them and washed or irrigated with compromised water. Add into the mix the fluctuation in independent stakeholder agricultural policy and the interruption in trade areas, and we have food that is victim to degraded soil, pollution, extensive transportation or poor storage — all of which has an influence on nutritional and cost factors.
I had experienced this conversation before with friends from New Zealand. My young guests were heartedly consuming all the food in sight and commenting on how delicious it all was. I was rather surprised as we were eating chicken sandwiches on the lawn. What I did not appreciate was that the ‘best’ of food leaves New Zealand driven by the strong export policy. Eating farm chicken, lettuce, tomato and canola oil mayo on fresh bread was a gastronomic event for these young guests even though their parents are exceptional cooks.
In Canada, the youth of our soil, the clearness of our air, our clean water and the strong push to make Canadian food the food of choice locally and in national policy provides all of us with access to nutritious and delicious food and food ingredients. Preserving this as a legacy will give us an unprecedented place in the world as the fertile North.
Why is this important?
Around the world, arable land per capita will continue to decrease. As we move forward, the need for tools and technology will increase as land is used for domestic housing and industry. Looking at historical data, this has worked so far in pushing the global caloric count of available food up, driving absolute poverty down and creating an environment where people are living longer and healthier lives.
At the same time, populations increase along with the consequence of pollution and waste. As the world becomes centralized (and this often occurs in rich farming areas near rivers and ports), then how do we move forward as a nation? What food and environmental policy do we need to differentiate ourselves globally as the fertile North defined by clean air, nutrient-dense soil and pure water?
What my friend could “taste” was the Canadian advantage.
Collectively along with food production choices; sound soil; fish, fowl and animal husbandry; science, technology, innovative and focused food processing; storage, and transportation; and, of course, food inspection and regulation or deregulation means that Canada is positioned to be the breadbasket of the world.
All of this with the proviso that we need to learn from the lessons of the past and fully appreciate that to move forward may take a new way of knowing and doing.