Demand for Ethnocultural Vegetables Far Exceeds Supply

New research reveals multimillion-dollar market

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Because new immigrants want to buy and consume familiar foods, there is continued transportation of ethnocultural foods into Canada. Guelph researchers say many of these imported vegetables could be grown in Canada. Photo by Ethno-Cultural Vegetables Ontario

Hungry consumers are out there, but where are the farmers? A new study by a University of Guelph team says a multimillion-dollar market exists for ethnocultural vegetables in Canada, but too few farmers are meeting the growing demand for okra, African eggplant, amaranth and other so-called ethnocultural vegetables.

Prof. Glen Filson, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD), hopes the new study will help to convince growers a market exists for produce favoured by African-Caribbean immigrants, as well as recent arrivals from China and South Asia.

The paper appeared online in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development. The lead author is Bamidele Adekunle, special graduate faculty in SEDRD’s capacity development and extension program.

Few studies have looked at ethnocultural food consumption by Canadians of African descent, defined as people from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean or West Indies. That group makes up almost 400,000 people among the six million-strong population of the Greater Toronto Area. The Afro-Caribbean market for ethnocultural vegetables in the GTA is worth about $7 million a month, say the Guelph researchers.

That’s the third-largest market for this produce, behind an estimated $33 million among about 800,000 Canadians of South Asian descent and $21 million for about 600,000 Chinese Canadians.

In 2009, the Guelph researchers surveyed a total of 750 people from all groups in Toronto.

Filson hopes the study will help persuade growers that demand for ethnocultural produce is high. Despite “eat local” movement and changing demographics, farmers have been reluctant to grow non-traditional vegetables.

He contrasts that with FarmStart, an incubator farm originally in Guelph and now based in Brampton, Ont. That organization has worked with recent immigrants using small plots to grow ethnocultural vegetables.

A key barrier for growers is lack of growing information for these items. What’s needed next, he says, is for other researchers to study how to grow this produce most effectively and efficiently, including investigating pest control. Currently no control products for this sector are registered in Ontario.

“We know the demand but not the production costs,” says Filson. Referring to growers, he adds, “They lack the technical expertise to grow these vegetables.”

Study co-author Sridharan Sethuratnam, a geography PhD student and FarmStart’s program manager, says: “There’s a huge gap between the lab and the land.”  Out of about 20 people working plots at FarmStart, about half are recent Canadian immigrants.

Some agronomic research on these products has also occurred at U of G’s Simcoe Research Station and the Muck Crops Research Station in Toronto.

Filson says financial incentives such as tax credits might also help persuade growers to look at ethnocultural vegetables.

The researchers also developed an acculturation scale, a tool used to gauge how well an ethnic group integrates into Canadian society and how their integration affects their consumption patterns.

Lacking their preferred produce, immigrants will substitute other food, say, spinach for amaranth. Says Adekunle, a Guelph PhD grad who earlier studied agricultural economics in Nigeria, “The interesting thing about African-Caribbeans is that they can’t find what they want although they’re willing to substitute. They say, ‘We’re willing to integrate, but we still prefer our food.’”

Other vegetables identified in the study include tomatoes, yams, pumpkin and squash, and plantain.