Demand grows for exotic veggies as nation's palate changes

Canadian immigrants looking for food they savoured in their native countries are fuelling a growing demand for ethnic vegetables like okra or callaloo that researchers say could be worth more than $60 million per month in the Greater Toronto Area alone.

Immigration fuelling multimillion dollar demand for locally grown world crops

Desmond Bailey takes a close look at okra growing on the Afri-Can FoodBasket plot at the McVean startup farm in Brampton, northwest of Toronto. (Janet Davison/CBC)

Anon Lololi quickly rattles off how he likes to cook callaloo, a leafy green vegetable common in his native Guyana, but not so common in kitchens and grocery stores around his Toronto-area home.

"We love it in rice," he says. Add coconut milk, and it’s a real "delicacy." Plus, it is chock full of nutrients, offering "more iron than spinach" and lots of Vitamin E.

But as good as callaloo may be, it’s far from being a household staple in Canadian kitchens. 

Lololi would like callaloo to become more common, though. And by growing and selling it, along with produce such as okra at farmers markets in Toronto, he’s tapping into an underserved demand for ethnic vegetables that University of Guelph researchers say could be worth more than $60 million per month in the Greater Toronto Area alone.

"We want to introduce these new crops to Toronto," says Lololi, executive director of the Afri-Can FoodBasket, a community group whose activities include growing vegetables at the McVean startup farm site in nearby Brampton.

And he seems to be looking at a market primed for their arrival.

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. 

More than eating turnips

In Markham alone, a city on Toronto's northern border with a large Chinese population, 72.3 per cent of the population was a visible minority, Statistics Canada said.

To the northwest, in Brampton, that proportion was 66.4 per cent — fuelled in large part by a burgeoning South Asian population. In Mississauga, to the west, visible minorities accounted for 53.7 per cent of the population. In Toronto itself, the proportion is 49.1.

Popular ethnic vegetables

Callaloo: Also called amaranth, bayam or kulitis and used in soups or steamed.

Fuzzy melon: Also called fuzzy gourd or hairy gourd and used in soups or stir-fried, stuffed or steamed.

Okra: Used in soups, salads and stir-fries.

Eggplant: Can be grilled, fried or baked.

Yard long bean: Pods are eaten fresh or cooked.

Source: Vineland Research and Innovation Centre

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."

But 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.

Anon Lololi crouches down for a closer look at callaloo - also called amaranth - growing at the McVean startup farm in Brampton, northwest of Toronto. (Janet Davison/CBC)

"We know now that you can grow okra and it’s been grown in large quantities in southern Ontario …just north of Lake Erie. And bitter melon can also be grown here."

But for other vegetables, "the growing season is just not long enough or we don’t have enough heat units because a lot of these are tropical vegetables," he says. 

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.

Eating okra

Canadians already consume quite a bit of okra, with estimates suggesting up to 24.9 million pounds are sold in-season in the country. Other estimates from the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre suggest it would take up to 2,000 acres of production to meet demand in Ontario alone.

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.

But there are other challenges, including what Filson calls a "cultural barrier" between the farmers who live in the prime production areas in southwestern Ontario and the immigrant consumer population in the GTA.

"A lot of those farmers just aren’t aware of the extent of the demand in the GTA," Filson says.

Another hurdle is the fact that, in Canada, there are no certified pesticides or fungicides for most of these new crops.

Some degree of risk

That absence would concern commercial producers who would worry these kinds of crops might develop a pest they would not be able to control.

"So there’s a certain amount of risk attached to the growth of some of these vegetables," Filson says.

That’s not to say some ethnic vegetables haven’t been successfully produced in Canada. Gauging total current production is difficult as Statistics Canada doesn’t have readily available numbers. But bok choi and related crops have been doing well in the lush Holland Marsh area north of Toronto for about 40 years.

Mary Ruth McDonald says there is considerable market potential for amaranth. (Courtesy Mary Ruth McDonald)

"They’ve gone from something being specialized to Chinese restaurants … to being widely consumed by many different groups," says Mary Ruth McDonald, a University of Guelph professor who works out of the Muck Crops Research Station at the Holland Marsh.

McDonald is now focusing some of her attention on amaranth — or callaloo.

"We know it can grow really well here," she says, as it is related to some of the common weeds like pigweed that can thrive and be quite a bother in Ontario fields. I see it as having a large market potential."

Canada’s largest food retailer has also spotted the market potential ethnic vegetables as a whole can hold.

Looking for freshness and value

While Loblaw Companies Limited would not disclose sales information, a company representative said it sees "significant" demand for ethnic produce in the GTA, as well as in the Vancouver and Montreal areas, as a result of immigration and "the changing palate of the general population." Strong growth is also emerging in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Moncton.

"Consumers are looking for produce that [is] familiar to them from their native countries and expect quality, freshness and value," Shreenivas Shellikeri, Loblaw’s senior category manager for ethnic produce, said in an email.

The opportunity starts with new Canadians, but the real opportunity is to feed it to everybody.— Ian Brandle

Loblaw started carrying okra about 15 years ago after noticing the rising demand for South Asian items, along with the number of South Asian grocery stores across the GTA.

"Today it’s one of the key ethnic produce items in many [Loblaw] stores," Shellikeri said.

But if consumers are looking for locally produced ethnic produce, it is hard to come by. At Loblaw, for example, on a yearly basis, 85 to 90 per cent of its ethnic produce is imported.

However, said Shellikeri, as part of the company’s "source with integrity" principle, it "prides itself on sourcing its produce locally when possible" and is getting some of the "key ethnic commodities" from family farms in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

At the Vineland research centre, Brandle isn't sure how long it might be before some ethnic vegetables become mainstream, but he sees a good possibility of that happening.

"The opportunity starts with new Canadians, but the real opportunity is to feed it to everybody," he says. "I can just see [the process of going mainstream] in things like sushi and mangos. Mangos are everywhere now, too. They used to be the most exotic thing on Earth."


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