One of the reasons agriculture is an exciting space to work in is that it offers solutions to problems that affect everybody, not the least of which is human illness.
The intrinsic link between agriculture and health is not something that most people, including politicians, fully realize or value. Too often the story about modern ag and food science is tied to health problems (whether accurate or not), with the regular culprits including genetic modification, gluten, pesticides, growth promotants, high fructose corn syrup, and so on. Lost in the negative stream of stories is the positive impact high-tech agriculture and food processing can have on addressing the chronic illnesses prevalent in Western countries. Agriculture is not only an obvious solution to problems with hunger or starvation, but also the illnesses that tend to come from an abundance of food, such as diabetes and heart disease. This is something that needs to be recognized and understood by everybody involved in human health, whether they’re in the health-care system or influencing policy that impacts health and nutrition.
Money can be a powerful motivator of action, and a study released by the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network last week was the latest to outline the financial reasons for promoting health solutions through the agriculture and food sector. Agriculture economist Maria Jose Patino Valiente found the Manitoba government could reduce its annual health-care budget by $360 to $400 million — or more than 10 percent — if Manitobans included more “functional foods” in their diets (read the executive summary here.)
The list of healthy foods used for the study doesn’t consist of trendy “superfoods” promoted on afternoon TV shows or popular blogs. No, it’s a list of what Canadian farms are already producing: canola oil, flaxseed, pulses, whole grains, potatoes, eggs, dairy, turkey, bison, freshwater fish, honey and grass-fed beef. If you’re the health minister looking after the largest portfolio in the provincial budget, those kinds of numbers should warrant some serious consideration about proactively investing health-care dollars in capturing the health benefits from what’s being grown on Canadian farms.
One of the main obstacles preventing us from eating more of these healthy foods (or these foods in a healthy form) is that we simply like our food the way it is. Taste and texture tend to trump nutrition. We don’t want to change what we eat. And that’s another reason why this is so exciting — because maybe we don’t have to.
Scientists at places like the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods in Winnipeg have developed pastas, soups, cookies, chocolate bars, brownies and other food products that taste good and contain bioactive ingredients with numerous health benefits, including boosting brain health, reducing cholesterol and mitigating heart disease. So while we’re nowhere close to having a magic pill, advancements in ag research and food science are unlocking opportunities for us to eat the same foods we always have, but without all the same negative consequences. We can have our cake and eat it too, and it might even be good for us.
These types of stories and this perspective on the relationship between agriculture and health don’t get the attention they deserve.
So what should be done? For governments, the savings from increased consumption of “functional foods” alone should lead to a more proactive approach to health-care, including an effort to make these foods more accessible. Farmers and processors are more than willing to produce healthier food ingredients if there’s an incentive (the premium paid for specialty canola oils would be one example among many.) And for everyone else, it’s very simple — rather than taking medication to cure a disease, why not prevent it in the first place by eating healthier?
Whether individually or as society, it’s time we recognize and promote the solutions the agriculture and food sector holds for addressing our health.