The line goes something like this: obesity, swine flu, avian flu, salmonella, and mad cow disease have all made it into the category of “major health scares” in recent years. The average age of farmers is, well, not very young, rural populations are dwindling, the archetypal Canadian farm is being handed over to massive agribusiness and those wooden wheat silos are now made of concrete. The variety of foods we eat has dropped drastically, but the number of processed, derived products has shot upwards. Some foods are — to use terminology no longer restricted to dinosaurs— going extinct. In this context, taking another look at what we eat and where it comes from doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
In Grain Elevated: The Rise and Fall of Red Fife Wheat, Sarah Musgrave points to the Red Fife wheat as a good example of some bigger problems. One of the first varieties of wheat grown in the country after colonization, Red Fife wheat could in large part be responsible for extending cultivated farmland across the Prairies and giving Canada the reputation of a breadbasket to the world. But with the massive industrialization of food production, Red Fife was replaced by higher yield, disease resistant, and more uniform strains of wheat, meaning that by mid-twentieth century, Red Fife had almost disappeared altogether. It was only after a bag of seed was found, kept and cultivated by people dedicated to preserving heritage foods, and then most recently brought to a wider audience by the Wild Fire Bakery in Victoria, BC, that Red Fife has made its way back onto the scene.
The problems faced by the Red Fife variety are representative of much larger issues in the food industry. The regulations imposed by Food Agencies in North America (the CFIA in Canada and FSIS in the US) are built to favour mass production: they approve products based on yield and uniformity, leaving taste, health value, and sustainability somewhere on the side of the road. Farmers in British Columbia tell a similar story: in 2004, the provincial government – partially in response to the BSE scare in Alberta – imposed new regulations on meat producers and processors. The result was that small farmers and processors, who feed their cattle less antibiotics, better food and give them more space, were completely unable to compete with mass producers, the ones whose food production system has caused the BSE scare in the first place. It is for reasons like this that Red Fife will most likely never actually be approved for human consumption: it doesn’t make sense for big business, even if it does for everyone else.
Musgrave argues that when we favour this kind of food production, we lose our sense of place: this bread or this syrup or these vegetables could be from anywhere, and we wouldn’t know better. She promotes a stronger sense of terroir: the idea that “a particular interplay of geography, history and human factors imbues food with a particular taste that cannot be recreated elsewhere”. Here, the personal is the political: Canadians need to make sense of agricultural policy so that it makes sense for us.
Musgrave’s chapter appears in What’s To Eat?, a volume edited by Nathalie Cooke which helps tell the story of how Canadians procure, produce, cook, consume and think about food. It will be published in September.