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Fields of Plenty

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July first is Canada Day! Something to celebrate is this country's important contribution to the world's food suppl.

July first is Canada Day! Something to celebrate is this country's important contribution to the world's food supply. Canada is unsurpassed for the quality and quantity of its grains and seeds: our long, cold prairie winters help control disease and pest problems while our hot, dry summers nurture bountiful yields.

Over 45 million tons of wheat, oats, barley, rye, canola and flax seed are produced here annually 98 percent on family owned and operated farms. Much is exported: 75 percent of our wheat is sent mostly to the USA, Japan and Europe.

We're also one of the top organic grain producers in the world. Although it's still a small fraction of total crop acreage, organic grain production here is growing by 20 per cent annually. New Canadian organic standards and handling infrastructure as well as lower production costs and higher premiums for farmers could create an organic grain boom (Agriculture Canada predicts a five-fold growth in the medium term).

Wheat was introduced to Canada in 1605 (and the west in 1812) and is our dominant cereal crop. Six types are planted in the spring and Canada is the world-leading exporter of hard red spring wheat. Durum wheat, a spring variety grown primarily in Saskatchewan, is a Canadian specialty ideal for making pasta. Two fall varieties are mostly planted in southern Ontario (where mild winters allow), retaining soil moisture and controlling spring weeds. Both spring and fall wheat can be hard or soft, with varying protein content. The hard wheats have higher gluten content and are best for bread making. The soft wheats excel in pastries, cakes, cookies and cereals.

Wheat stimulates the liver to rid the body of toxins, supports the heart, spleen and pancreas and treats a range of stress-related symptoms. It fosters growth, so is good for children. However, its wide use in processed products and our diets generally (toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pizza or pasta for dinner) leads to over-consumption and therefore allergies. "Fortified" means that only some of those nutrients lost when the bran and germ have been stripped off are replaced, and in limited proportions and unnatural states.

"White" flour's popularity dates back to the introduction of porcelain rolling mills in the 1870s. These removed the bran and germ from the nutritionally inferior endosperm for a more consistent and stable flour. More expensive white flour became a symbol of wealth while the peasants ate whole grain foods.

Kamut and spelt are wheat relatives. They have gained popularity here over the past decade as they can be tolerated by those who are sensitive to regular wheats. Canadian-grown Artesian Acres kamut pastas have been approved by the Washington DC-based Glycemic Research Institute as low glycemic good for diabetics, hypoglycemics, dieters and athletes.

Kamut is similar to durum wheat in its high protein content and golden colour. Spelt, a winter wheat, is softer and its higher moisture content requires less liquid than wheat in home baking.

Barley was introduced here in 1605 and is now also primarily grown on the prairies. As then, most is not for flour but for livestock feed and beer (15 percent is used for malting and the rest for feed). Barley is high-yielding, matures early and is often used in rotation with wheat. Much is processed into pearl barley, stripped of hull and germ (and nutritional value). Whole barley, with the inedible hulls removed, is rich in protein, B vitamins and fibre. Barley stimulates the appetite, aids with digestive disorders, helps prevent tooth decay and hair loss and improves the condition of toe- and fingernails. Barley also helps lower blood-cholesterol, reduce tumours and is used to treat hepatitis.

Oats make up about seven per cent of our grain crop. Introduced in the early 17th century and now grown in many regions of Canada, oats were second in importance only to wheat before tractors due to their dual purpose for animal and human food. Though oats come in an array of colours from black to red and white, demand for white oats predominates.

Oats contain an antioxidant and when ground, the flour stays fresh for longer than most whole grain flours. Oats have a higher proportion of fat and protein than other grains and thus have been used as a staple in northern climate diets. Oats' high silicon content means they're good for bones and connective tissues. A high fibre content makes them an excellent mild laxative. Oats also assist in reducing stress, help stabilize blood sugar and soothe the digestive and nervous systems. They can also reduce cravings for cigarettes. It's best to eat rolled oats without milk or a sweetener as they can ferment in your stomach. When freshly rolled, oats are naturally sweet home flakers are easy to use and well worth the effort. Oats even help with skin conditions when applied topically.

Rye has long been prized for its hardy ability to grow in sub-standard soil and climate conditions and for its many uses as forage, cereal grain and pasture. It's one of few grains that can be fall-sown in western Canada and survive our harsh winter. Organic rye rivals Canada's organic wheat production.

Eating rye promotes "hardiness" and the building of muscle and stamina. It helps clean and renew arteries, builds bones, hair and fingernails and can restore the digestive system. Of all the grains, it has the highest lysine content, the amino acid needed to create all proteins in the body important for recovery from surgery or injury. Its distinctive flavour can be enjoyed in breads, crackers and mixed with other grains for dinner.

Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye with the higher gluten and protein content of wheat and the hardiness of rye. It's used for flakes and flour as well as for animal feed and forage.

Buckwheat is actually a member of the rhubarb family. The seed can be ground into flour or used as a breakfast cereal or dinner grain. It's a small but growing portion of our organic crops whose distinctive flavour and no gluten make it great for the gluten-intolerant.

Canola was developed in Canada by breeding the industrial oil-producing rape plant to make an oil and meal fit for humans and livestock feed. The new oil bolstered the Canadian edible oil industry, spawning brilliant yellow fields of canola flowers across the prairies and the Peace River valley in British Columbia. Though not originally genetically engineered, 60 per cent of the crop now is, lowering demand in Europe and Japan and prices from $10 a bushel two years ago to an expected four dollars this year. Canada's organic canola farmers have difficulty finding non-GE canola seeds and risk contamination with GE pollen from other fields.

Flax from Canada makes 40 percent of the global harvest. Flax is also one of Canada's three organic oilseed crops. The tiny brown or yellow smooth seeds perfectly preserve the precious omega-3 oil contained inside. To absorb and benefit from the flax oil, it's necessary to grind or break the shell, preparing only as much as needed at the time and using it raw. Heating damages the sensitive omega-3 oil. When soaked in water, flax seeds produce a gelatinous liquid which can be used as an egg substitute in recipes where egg is needed to bind (and not leaven). It also helps relieve constipation.

Flax is rich in potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, phosphorus, niacin, vitamin E, all eight amino acids, lecithin, dietary fibre and fat (more than 50 percent alpha-linolenic acid). Flax helps strengthen the immune, thyroid and adrenal systems and regulates the hormones. Flax seeds are also said to be energizing, improve the skin and hair and enrich the blood. The omega-3 is prized for its ability to reduce serum triglyceride levels while the alpha-linolenic acid helps maintain the integrity of cell walls and inhibits the production of tumour-promoting acid within the body.

Canadian flax farmers (primarily prairie-based) have decided to not grow genetically engineered flax. Since Europe is a major export market, GE flax could jeopardize the crop's viability. This ensures organic flax farmers are safe from GE contamination.

Hemp seed production for cereal has grown over the past five years now that it's approved in Canada. (It's still illegal to plant hemp in the United States). Hemp grows well in our climate. Its health and environmental benefits are well known but the processing of seeds and fibre is still developing. Hemp seed, flour and oil products are highly nutritious. The seeds contain essential fatty acids and 25 percent protein and are used around the world as a seed butter, as hot or cold cereal and in snack foods, specialty beers and veggie burgers.

Grains should be eaten in variety and are best whole or freshly cracked or ground. They're best pre-soaked or sprouted. I love unleavened bread made from sprouted grains baked slowly at low temperatures.

Celebrate Canada with the food we grow best: organically grown grains and seeds. Support the organic industry by refusing genetically engineered foods of all types.

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