Prairie Lentils; Where is our food coming from?
Have you heard of the ‘Land of the Living Skies?’
Until I touched down there and saw the open sky and read the registration plates that proudly display this phrase, I didn’t know that Saskatchewan was called so. The landscape, for those from India, is reminiscent of Rajasthan and the valleys of Ladakh and the gentle, rolling valleys of the Chambal except the ravines that run along the river.
The vastness of the desert scape and the prairies makes them magical and mysterious. The clear line of sight until the horizon creates an illusion of seeing it all. And then the mirage takes hold. You chase it and it moves, taking you on a journey all its own. The horizon is a constant reminder of our smallness. It is at once, intimidating and comforting, a constant companion for hundreds of miles.
It is always a humbling experience to be in these majestic landscapes. Forests have a different charm – something’s waiting, a pleasant vista, or a bone chilling surprise kind of charm. I love greenery and forests, as long as I am led to an open space where the sky once again becomes abundant.
So it was in summer of 2015 that I found my way to Regina, Saskatchewan on a brief family vacation. Prior to that I had already been informed by my brother that the prairies of Canada are like the Gangetic plains in India, food baskets, more appropriately a land pulsing with legumes. If you walk into a gift shop in the city of Regina, at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum or in downtown, chances are you will find sets of coasters with encased grains from the region. Some of the common ones are mustard (Rai), rye, barley (Jau) and wheat (Gehun) from amongst many other staple crops grown here and exported the world over, including India. As the image shows, they also grow chickpeas (Kabuli Chana), lentils (dals, masoor chiefly), various peas and beans.
Canada is the largest exporter of pulses in the world and by value India is its biggest consumer. Take the numbers, for 2012 the total export of pulses from Canada was worth $2.2 billion, 27% of which was bought by India. That is $594 million or ₹ 59.4 crore. The trend of relying on imported pulses to fulfil domestic demand has been constant in India since 2011-12 due to a lack of expansion in acreage under legume cultivation. An increase in imports was considered as a way to stem the tide of rising inflation last year. But, there is a flip side to this conundrum. The steep rise in the price of ‘dal’ in the summer of 2015 was also due a shrinkage in the Canadian crop. Another testament to the force of nature, since it was rain and too much of it, that led to this situation.
If you are consuming leguminous food, the likelihood that it originated in Canada is very high. Other trading partners listed by the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance include U.S., China, Turkey and Bangladesh.
Enough of Canada, who are the other suppliers of pulses to the subcontinent?
It doesn’t take too much research on the internet to get the answer. The Observatory of Economic Complexity (nifty name!) presents the data in a neat chart. The site has trends up to 2013. Burma/ Myanmar, according to these figures is the second largest exporter of legumes to India and has been a constant supplier ever since the late 1970’s. The 1990’s show a sharp rise in imports, which is historically justified due to economic liberalization started in that decade.
There are, I am sure, more reports which comprehensively analyze the trade in pulses and its history. For me the time spent in Saskatchewan was an eye opener and the reason I started researching imports of food in India. The enormous landmass of the Canadian prairies is being cultivated on an industrial scale and grain silos line the Trans-Canada highway. Railways are aligned to this industry and most silos we saw had a track running right next to them for easy transfer.
The benefit of this vastness is that even with extremely short growing periods, winters are long and treacherously cold, farmers in the prairies are able to survive with one major crop per season. Essentially, a major crop in the spring-summer time and then a faster growing crop in fall before the cold sweeps the land. India on the other hand is a land crushed by its burgeoning population and continuous contraction of arable land. As citizens in a globalized world (it always was globalized!) facing the brunt of man-made disasters, it is prudent to be aware of our foods’ origins and respect it. An event across the world, no matter how small could have economic ramifications on our food supply.
Driving along the Trans-Canada highway, you can be fooled by mirages, and the illusion that the next town is just round the corner. It is a majestic landscape, sparse but beautiful. A journey along this route is an exercise in humility and a test of planning and preparation; there are no gas stations or stops for hundreds of kilometers. An enterprise that pits man against nature. As we journeyed from Regina, SK to Calgary, AB there was an acute awareness of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. As much as I was awed by the geography and flora of the prairies, hats off to the people who have made it home and till the land to feed mouths the world over.
If you have a story about the origin of a food ( something so conspicuous you couldn’t imagine it growing elsewhere), how it surprised you and led you to a journey of discovery, please share it in the comments. I would love to hear about your experiences. Who would’ve known that the ‘dal’ I have grown up eating, cooked at home, bought at the local grocer had probably journeyed 7000 miles/ 11,000 km across the seas, literally!