Food fighter

Professor Evan Fraser is working to better the world’s food systems

Photo by Dan BannisterPhoto by Dan Bannister

The “standout moment” that helped shape the way Evan Fraser thinks about food came on a hot July day when he was in his late teens, working on his grandfather’s fruit farm in Ontario’s Niagara region. He’d been on his hands and knees pulling weeds all day when his grandmother, who was doing quite well in her second career as an investment advisor, pulled up in her Lincoln Town Car.

“The window rolled down, and there was that little puff of air-conditioned air,” recalls Fraser, noting the contrast to the heat he was contending with weeding the strawberry patch. “Gran and I conversed and I discovered that she had probably made more money in just that afternoon on commissions from her clients’ investments than I was going to make all summer [working on the fruit farm].” At the same time, this was a summer when California cherry imports were selling for cheaper than it would cost local farmers to hire students to pick the cherries. As a result, many Ontario farmers weren’t even bothering to harvest their cherry crops.

From that episode, Fraser came to a few conclusions. “One, I didn’t want to take on the family farm, because frankly it’s easier to write and talk about farming than it is to try to make a go of it,” he laughs. “And secondly, the world is so full of these weird contradictions in our food systems, and it was a giant puzzle to try to think about these challenges and, ultimately, think about whether there were better ways of managing the world’s food production and nutrition than we were currently doing.”

Today, Fraser spends his days trying to figure out those “better ways.” After earning a BA in anthropology and an MA in forestry at the University of Toronto, he went on to get his PhD in resource management and environmental studies at the University of British Columbia. He became a professor at the University of Guelph in 2010, where he currently holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in global food security.

Fraser is also the director of the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute, which was established in 2017. As Fraser explains, “The vision of the institute is to help promote a world where we move towards greater amounts of equity, safety, nutrition and sustainability in our food system, while still maintaining profitability and economic viability. That’s the ‘big’ mission.” But on a local level, he says, the institute also strives to keep Canada at the forefront of these discussions. This is particularly true when it comes to transformative technology like data analytics and artificial intelligence, he says. “Whether we like it or not, there is a digital revolution coming in the food business. Someone is going to be the leader in this, so why not Canada?”

Fraser stresses that partnerships—whether with government, industry, or other units at the university—are an important cornerstone of the institute’s work, “because we’re never going to solve all these problems in silos.” The institute, for example, is currently involved in research on biodegradable food packaging, a project being led by the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre at the University of Guelph.

Not one to stick to the ivory tower of academia, Fraser also sits on the board of Maple Leaf Foods’ Centre for Action on Food Security, and is a scientific advisor on George Weston Ltd.’s Seeding Food Innovation fund. And for the last couple of years he’s been part of the Loblaw Food Council, a diverse group of Canadian chefs, registered dietitians, academics and other food experts who come together to predict food trends for the coming year.

Overall, Fraser is optimistic about the sustainable future of our food systems. “One of the big challenges facing humanity over the next hundred years is how to sustainably, equitably and nutritiously feed us all. I believe we’ll get there,” he says. “We have a ringside seat to one of the great transformations. It’s exciting. We’ve all got a part to play, and it’s not going to be easy, but it’s what we need to do.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s November 2018 issue.