Nature’s Past Episode 36: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VI – Agri-Food Systems, I

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Episode 36: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VI – Agri-Food Systems, I

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The history of Canadian food and agriculture is an enormous topic with both a global and deeply personal scope. All humans require food to live and agricultural products become food for our consumption, demonstrating the profound interrelatedness of food and agriculture. Beyond sheer survival, food serves social and cultural purposes for all people, from planting and harvesting, through preparation, and ultimately with consumption. Communities and families coalesce around these activities and have done so for all of human existence. Food is a source of pleasure and for many people is intricately linked with spirituality. Examining the environmental history of food and agriculture in Canada reveals the ways in which our complex relationships with nature and each other inform this most intimate aspect of our daily lives.

A primary element of agriculture is a relationship with the earth. In order to cultivate crops to harvest and consume, humans must manipulate the natural environment. Since the arrival of Europeans to North America, agriculture has largely involved a perceived human domination of the environment including physical manipulation (tilling, seeding, deforestation, filling wetlands), technological innovation (genetically modified crops, mechanized equipment, fertilizer, pesticide), and transportation of agricultural products (railways, highways, airports, canals and seaways). Euro-Canadian concepts of liberalism have also influenced the relationship between people and the planet, promoting private property ownership as one of its foundational elements of property, liberty, and equality. The ideal of the yeoman farmer, an entrepreneurial agricultural producer, is fundamental to the Canadian founding myth. In order to create Euro-Canadian farms on the landscape, however, indigenous peoples were displaced, intertwining human relationships with the land and also with other humans.

Food and agriculture require and inform our relationships with each other. In the process of colonialism, European-style agriculture was adopted by and foisted upon indigenous peoples through political mechanisms. Politics, food, and agriculture continue to be closely tied as demonstrated through food-based political movements, agricultural and food regulation and legislation, international trade policies, and even in Canada’s World War I conscription crisis. Migrations between provinces and immigration policy have been driven by agriculture, and current Canadian politics are focused in many ways on increasing the export of Canadian agricultural and food products. Regional and national dishes and crops inform Canadian identities. The power shift from producer to corporation in Canadian food systems is thought to be a factor in social inequity experienced by people across the globe.

Canadian agriculture and food are crucial components to discussions about health. The quantity of food available dictates both famine and obesity, as does the quality of food. As more is known about the health effects for humans of genetically modified foods, hormone-added foods, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and food-borne infections such as Escherichia coli and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, we are changing how we interact with our food and its suppliers. Agricultural environmental practices also raise concerns about the health of the groundwater we drink and use for irrigation, as well as the air we breathe. Reviewing the history of agriculture and food in Canada helps us understand why we have the systems we do and how they came to be, as well as assess their efficacy for our contemporary needs and desires as humans always in need of nourishment.

To begin this look at agriculture and food in Canadian history, we look at the case study of chicken breeding in North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On this episode of the podcast, we spoke Margaret Derry about her new book Art and Science in Breeding: Creating Better Chickens.

Margaret Derry's new book Art and Science in Breeding: Creating Better Chickens.

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Margaret Derry

Works Cited

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “An Overview of the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food System, 2012”

Andrews, Geoff. The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

Bradbury, Bettina. “Pigs, Cows, and Boarders: Non-Wage Forms of Survival Among Montreal Families, 1861-91,” Labour/Le Travail, 14 (Fall 1984), 9-46.

Carter, Sarah. Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

Derry, Margaret. Art and Science in Breeding: Creating Better Chickens. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Iacovetta, Franca, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp. Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Mosby, Ian. “‘That Won Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980.” Social History of Medicine 22, No. 1 (April 2009): 133-151.

Murton, James. Creating a Modern Countryside: Liberalism and Land Resettlement in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.

Russell, Peter A. How Agriculture Made Canada: Farming in the Nineteenth Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.

Turner, Chris. “The Farms are not All Right” The Walrus, October 2011.

Wall, Ellen, Barry Smit, and Johanna Wandel. Farming in a Changing Climate: Agricultural Adaptation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.

Winson, Anthony. The Intimate Commodity: Food and the Development of the Agro-Industrial Complex in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Music Credit:

 “Relaxing Birds + Bass” by Rædysphere
“Gm110-AcousticSongChords” by Javolenus
“The Same Light Shines” by unreal_dm

Photo Credit:

“Canada’s Egg Opportunity [Canada][ca. 1918]“, Creator unknown, Canada Food Board Credit: War Poster Collection, Reference Code: C 233-2-2-0-66, Archives of Ontario, I0016361


Kheraj, Sean, Stacy Nation-Knapper, and Andrew Watson. “Episode 36: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VI – Agri-Food Systems, I” Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast. 31 March 2013.

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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at


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