Ten Books to Contextualize the Environmental History of Food and Agriculture in Canada

By Andrew Watson, Stacy Nation-Knapper, and Sean Kheraj


Hop pickers, Cooper’s farm, Bloomfield. Source: Archives of Ontario

Last year, Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast, published a special series called, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues”. Each episode focused on a different contemporary environmental issue and featured interviews and discussions with historians whose research explains the context and background. Following up on that project, we are publishing six articles with ActiveHistory.ca that provide annotated lists of ten books and articles that contextualize each of the environmental issues from the podcast series.

On the sixth and seventh episodes of the series, we explored the environmental history of food and agriculture in Canada. We interviewed Margaret Derry about her book on chicken breeding, Art and Science in Breeding: Creating Better Chickens. We also convened a round table panel with the editors and authors of Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History. Food history is a growing field of study and it has many intersections with environmental history.


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

Nature’s Past Episode 37: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VII – Agri-Food Systems II

Here are ten books to contextualize the environmental history of food and agriculture in Canada:

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

While the Slow Food Movement may not be a new concept for many readers, Geoff Andrews describes its formation and international growth via surprising paths. Begun as an Italian political movement responding to globalization and political corruption in the 1970s, it gained momentum in the following decade by responding to environmental and vinicultural catastrophes such as the Chernobyl disaster and the Narzole wine poisonings by encouraging mindfulness of food sources. The Slow Food Story follows the movement from these origins to its current incarnation as an international organization with nearly 100,000 members in more than 120 countries, including a branch in Canada, for which global food security and eco-gastronomy are now central foci.

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

Carter tackles the complex interactions between prairie indigenous peoples and the Canadian government at the end of the nineteenth-century, arguing against the explanation that agriculture failed on western Canadian Indian reserves because indigenous people were unfamiliar with agricultural labor. Instead, Carter demonstrates governmental reluctance and unwillingness to follow through on treaty agreements in direct contravention of its stated goal to encourage agriculture on reserves, and in spite of “early and sustained” indigenous interest in agriculture.

Cho, Lily. Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Cho writes about the diasporic experiences of Chinese people in small Canadian towns through the cultural mediation of food. In small town Chinese-Canadian restaurants, food acted as a filter through which the Chinese diaspora in Canada is understood. Cho also explores the ways in which Chinese Canadians interacted with non-Chinese Canadians through the food they created, made, and served.

Cooke, Nathalie. What’s to Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.

Arguments about Canadian identity and cuisine are frequently made in as disparate places as beer commercials and church cookbooks. In What’s to Eat?, the contributors take on the daunting task of identifying Canadian foods and explaining how they influence Canadian identities. Divided into two parts, the first half of the book examines Canadian food experiences such as the Columbian Exchange, the creation of tourtière, and the use of turkey in Thanksgiving meals. The second half of the book explores how food has been used in projects of Canadian nationalism and regionalism, including the idea of a Canadian family meal. The introduction of What’s to Eat? also includes a comprehensive historiography of Canadian cookbooks.

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

Exploring the history of chicken breeding in North America, Margaret Derry traces the change in breeding emphasis from breeding for pleasure, or show, to breeding for production, or commercial profit. Derry interrogates the role of genetics in chicken breeding between 1850 and 1960 to elucidate the genetic manipulation of chickens for their most desirable commercial traits. A prominent theme in Art and Science in Breeding is the ascendant role of multinational corporations in dominating the “broiler” industry in Canada and the United States.

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

This new and sizeable addition to Canadian food history contains twenty three essays on a hugely diverse number of topics, divided into eight chapters. The editors make clear that Edible Histories, Cultural Politics is not attempting to define Canadian food culture, but rather to demonstrate the utility of “food as a lens of examination” in Canadian historical analysis. In doing so, they show the many ways in which various subdisciplines of history come together in interrogating human experience through food.

MacRae, Rod and Elisabeth Abergel, eds. Health and Sustainability in the Canadian Food System: Advocacy and Opportunity for Civil Society. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012.

This collection of essays, though occasionally acronym- and jargon-heavy, examines the large-scale patterns of twenty-first century Canadian food and agricultural policy, land use practices, production, and economics. The goal of the book is “to identify new ways for non-state actions to influence the evolution of sustainable and health-promoting food systems,” but the case studies provided do much to explain current Canadian foodways. The case study topics vary widely from GMO regulation, breastfeeding policies, and childhood obesity to reflections on renewable energy, pest management, and land protection and sustainability activism.

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

Russell sifts through the historiographical static surrounding the history of farming and migration in nineteenth-century Canada. He reviews what some historians have deemed agricultural crises in Quebec and Ontario, returning to the work of Fernand Ouellet and finding value in his supporting research and arguments, while acknowledging Ouellet’s problematic theses. Russell seeks to demonstrate the ways in which economic, social, and political links bind the agricultural histories of Quebec, Ontario, and “the Prairies” through three major themes: links between regions, policy in relation to application, and ways to learn from our past.

Wilson, Catharine Anne. Tenants in Time: Family Strategies, Land, and Liberalism in Upper Canada, 1799-1871. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

Many books and articles have been written on nineteenth-century agriculture in Upper Canada, but Catharine Anne Wilson has approached the subject in an innovative way. Here the author examines the experiences of tenants, the one-quarter to one-half of the rural population who rented and farmed land, in this time and place. By researching the lives of non-owners, Wilson challenges liberal assumptions about land-owning farmers and argues that renting farmers were a very real part of the working reality of nineteenth-century Canadian political economy.

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

Written nearly twenty years ago, The Intimate Commodity continues to be relevant in its explanation of how the Canadian food system is organized and how that organization affects the daily lives of Canadians and people around the world. Winson tracks the growth of the capitalist “agro-industrial complex” as the distribution of power shifted from farmers as individuals to the enormous corporations that are now largely in control of Canadian food systems, from production to consumption. As this transnational business rose, Winson argues that inequality increased, demonstrating that economic growth does not always lead to social betterment.

To listen to the complete podcast series, visit Nature’s Past.

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