Earlier this year, Statistics Canada reported that of the country’s largest urban centres, the Toronto area had “by far” the largest share of foreign-born residents, a group representing 46 per cent of the population. That immigration influx has prompted those who think about how food is produced in Canada to ask some serious questions. “When you look at the demographic trends, you go, ‘Oh boy, by 2017, Toronto will be more than 50 per cent visible minority’ — so the visible majority at that point — and what are we in agriculture doing about that?” asks Jim Brandle, chief executive officer of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario’s Niagara Region. “People come with their own cultural and dietary traditions, and quite frankly I think the idea is to give people what they want rather than to teach them to eat turnips, which has sort of been our strategy so far.”
However, producing those more exotic crops isn’t as simple as getting some seeds, planting them and expecting to reap lush harvests a few months later. “What we discovered is that some things are not well understood,” says Glen Filson, a professor at the University of Guelph. His research, in conjunction with others, found the potential demand for fresh, locally grown ethnic vegetables could be worth $61 million a month in the greater Toronto area alone.
According to Filson’s study, people in the Chinese community are looking for bok choi, Chinese broccoli and eggplant. In the South Asian community, consumers want okra, eggplant and bitter melon. Those in the African-Caribbean community also would look for okra, along with African eggplant, garden eggs and callaloo, also known as smooth amaranth.
At the Vineland centre, researchers have decided to narrow their focus to three ethnic vegetables: round Indian eggplant, long Asian eggplant and okra. Those crops are the ones considered to “fit well into our production system and ones the growers could grow profitably,” says Brandle.