I'm sitting in Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian restaurant on Queen West, trying to do a selling job on an ethnic farming specialist.
Try this, I tell Rutgers University's Bill Sciarappa, offering him a piece of injera, the tart flatbead served with beans, veggies and meat. I'm hoping to convince him that teff, the grain from which it is made, could be grown in Ontario instead of imported, as it almost all is, from Idaho.
"Oh, you mean Ethiopian lovegrass," he says, as he and the owner joke about the fact that the grass is treated as a weed in New Jersey and fed to livestock.
Sciarappa's business is repositioning ethnic food as what he likes to call "world food." That's why FarmStart, an org promoting the needs of immigrants who want a career in food production, invited him in the last week of November to address three southern Ontario workshops in Toronto, Guelph and Durham Region.
Sciarappa, who wants to let a thousand bitter melons bloom, likes to tell farmers in New Jersey, the Garden State, to "get progressive or get out." The phrase is a jab at the infamous slogan of 1950s agribusiness: "Get big or get out." His mission is to help local farmers start serving an untapped billion-dollar market for "ethnic" fruit and veggies.
And he's clear that Ontario's hard-pressed farmers have the same bigbuck opportunity, since the GTA is home to as many immigrant taste buds as the market he's targeting - the entire U.S. eastern seaboard.
The argument for hundreds of new (to North America) crops is only partly about farmers shielding themselves from low prices by finding "specialty crop" niches unaffected by the glutted markets and panic sales that typify meat, peas and potatoes.
Sciarappa tells policy wonks that specialty crops are reorienting the economic landscape of near-urban farming. The new agriculture will feature small and nimble entrepreneurial farmers who use their expensive and high-quality land to serve nearby customers with special needs.
"Think of how your food looks on a plate," the ag adviser at a leading U.S. university tells farmers, many of whom know more about what their crop looks like on a loading dock, because they were trained to leave the "value-added" of preparing food for the table to giant processors.
But there's a lot more involved here than helping farmers find new markets. Let's remember that North American farmers have been growing new crops for immigrants since the 1600s, when they pushed Aboriginal peoples off the land and started raising wheat, chicken, pigs, cows and steers along with key native crops like corn, potatoes, squash and tobacco. So there's nothing new about reorienting food production to newcomers.
We've already had broad experience with encouraging new growing patterns, though we still have a long way to go. Dandelions became a cash food crop because they were favoured by members of the mass Italian migration to Canada during the 1950s and 60s. Purslane, one of Ontario's most common weeds, fared less well. A valued salad green in many parts of the Middle East and Asia, it's only used here as chicken feed or killed as an invader.
Amaranth greens, too, grow wild here (one version is known as pigweed), but is rarely grown commercially, despite the fact that UN agencies see it as a prime crop for preventing malnutrition and Caribbean islanders use it in callaloo soup.
Sciarappa was also intrigued to learn from Rwanda-born Patrick Habamenshi, a staffer with FarmStart, that sorghum is featured on Rwanda's coat of arms and is a nutrient-dense staple eaten as a cereal and converted on special occasions into the local version of champagne. Geez, we only grow it for livestock, says Sciarappa. Indeed, many of the world's most nutritious grains survive mainly because they're fed to animals (oats for example) or birds (millet or hemp).
Sciarappa grew up on a small New Jersey farm owned by his Italian grandparents in the days when pizza, parsley and eggplant were known as ethnic foods. He hopes today's generation of immigrants can have even greater success influencing the North American diet.
The new mindset on world foods also comes out of the growing recognition that access to "culturally appropriate foods" ("comfort foods") is part of what food security experts term "the right to food."
Sufficient quantities and nutrition are no longer adequate to define the right to food in an increasingly multicultural world, and "specialty" crops may soon be rebranded as inclusive, rather than ethnic.
As well, many world foods come from cultures where they're defined as having healthful and medicinal, rather than fuel and entertainment, value. A leading light in that trend is bitter melon, or bitter gourd, important in Chinese and Indian cuisines. A growing body of medical research links bitter melon to prevention and reversal of diabetes and related chronic diseases.
Dr. Youbin Zheng, who is experimenting with year-round and fresh bitter melons in Guelph University's greenhouse, got Sciarappa thinking along those lines.
In some ways, the U.S. is way ahead of us in fostering farming innovation, offering grants for research and assistance. In a country known for its hostility to government intervention in the economy, thousands of experts like Sciarappa are paid to help farmers grow and process new crops.
Maybe that's another good food idea we could import from elsewhere.
The GTA draws folks from all the corners of the planet - so why aren't Ontario farmers growing and marketing many of the world's most nutritious grains and plants?
• An annual herb, not a true grain, a relative of pigweed, also called lamb's quarters
• One of the staples of the Incas
• Used by ancient Aztecs, who thought it had magical powers; they made images of gods with it
• Burned and banished by the Spanish
• Can be cooked as a cereal, ground into flour, popped or toasted
• Amaranth greens are also called Chinese spinach and callaloo
• Extremely adaptable to adverse growing conditions
• Amaranth, Ontario, is named after the plant, which grows there
• Ancient grain originating in Ethiopia between 4000 and 1000 BC
• Used for making injera, porridge or flour for baking
• Rich in calcium, protein, carbohydrates and fibre
• Contains no gluten, so it's good for those with gluten allergies
• Rapid maturation and cold tolerance make it suitable for Canada's short growing seasons