Foods with a function beyond normal sustenance — appropriately named functional foods — have been held out as a tiny but lucrative alternative to traditional commodities — especially corn and soybeans.
Farmers are paid more to grow functional foods, and consumers pay more for them. When corn, soybeans and wheat were a fraction of their current price, niches such as functional foods looked mighty attractive.
But a light came on when the agri-food sector started boning up on how to produce more functional foods, such as broccoli, garlic, flax, legumes and enhanced milk. It was reminded that "lucrative" can also mean high maintenance, and some functional foods were both.
Given their specific traits, delicate nature or end use, farmers might need to use unconventional management or special approaches to crop protection and identity preservation.
Now, traditional commodity prices have finally reached a modicum of respectability, and a positive forecast is on the horizon. Farmers are asking: are functional foods really worth the bother?
I think so. But for reasons other than profit.
Functional foods may be tiresome to farmers, but not to consumers. Through the media, the source of most health-related information, consumers know there's growing evidence about the connection between diet and health. They're hearing it everywhere, including from Ottawa.
Health Canada says diet may modify the risk of developing or exacerbating certain chronic diseases. As well, it says, individual components of foods can affect certain risk factors for disease.
This reinforces the sage advice we receive from grandparents and parents — and health professionals — about why we should eat the likes of All Bran, Red River cereal and fish oil. It's the same reason the University of Guelph and other research institutions, as well as the federal and provincial governments, are working hard on functional food research.
Functional foods hold promise, and unless they're snake oil (which they are, sometimes, underlining the need for research), they can work.
Consumers' zeal has implications for anyone concerned about maintaining our domestic food market. Scads of reasons exist for buying Canadian food — product integrity, regulatory agency approval, supporting the local economy, and so on. But if there's a particular food that keeps consumers going strong, will they care if it's made in Canada?
Some will, but I think many won't.
The agri-food sector has realized it must improve its consumer connectivity. Failing to meet demand is a slippery slope. If consumers go elsewhere for niches they could have bought from Canadian farmers, and foreign supply chains get established, they could end up buying staples from importers, too.
Then you wake up one day to find most things you buy in your own country are made somewhere else. Sound familiar?
Another thing about niches is that because they're small they tend to be scattered about. That can make collaboration and co-operation difficult for those already a part of the industry, as well as for others trying to find a door in.
Last year, Guelph-based MaRS Landing took stock of the functional food and natural health products sector, and in November launched a database of 400 entities with a stake in the sector — farmers, industry, researchers, government agencies, support organizations and affiliated businesses. It's going strong, and getting a lot of interest.
Initiatives such as this database will help keep functional food development active in Ontario.
It's only fitting — researchers here were functional food pioneers, going back 20 years when Guelph nutritional sciences professor Bruce Holub started issuing warnings about trans fat and extolling the virtues of eating oily fish.
We're a hub for health-related research and developments, and we — like farmers –have a big stake in its future.