Aric McBay Author, farmer, organizer.


Column: The origin of the onion

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

Onion weeding work bee.

Onion weeding work bee.

I’ll be honest with you; as a kid, I would spit out any onion I tasted. At first I hated the flavour, but I came to hate the idea of onions. Inform my six-year-old self that there was onion in a meal, and you’d ensure in one sentence I would not take another bite.

I’m telling you this so that you know I was not easily won over to the side of the onion.

Only when I became a teenage vegan (much to the surprise of my parents, since I had little interest in vegetables in general) did I come to appreciate the onion. Teenagers are notorious for being hungry, and without animal products my palate necessarily broadened. As an adult became I a farmer and, with my new perspective on the food system, omnivorous.

So my childhood self would be shocked that not only do I appreciate onions, I actually spend much of my time growing them along with other vegetables. In fact, butter-fried onions are a favourite side-dish in our household.

My farming ancestors a thousand years ago, on the other hand, never had any doubt about the importance of the onion. Onions have been prized since they were first domesticated in Eurasia 7,000 years ago.

In medieval times, onions were considered valuable enough that you could reputedly pay your rent with them. Or you might give them as a wedding gift (since onions were thought to increase fertility and libido). Peasants would have appreciated the onion’s culinary attributes, to be sure. Its health benefits were widely known, useful in treating any number of ailments.

But they would be won over by the onion’s excellent agricultural qualities. The sharp, sulfur-rich compounds I hated when I was small make onions relatively resistant to disease in the field, and help them last longer in storage.

For these reasons, the onion was a staple crop in Europe until it was displaced (in Ireland, most famously) by the potato. But why? When potatoes and other crops like tomatoes and peppers were brought to Europe from the Americas, farmers viewed them with suspicion. Potatoes are members of the nightshade family, which was better known in Europe for poisonous species like belladonna (deadly nightshade). What made the Irish give up their favoured staple for a strange foreign crop?

The answer is simple: poverty. The potato was brought back to Europe while the nautical powers like Spain and Britain were bloodily expanding their empires around the world. In reward for military service abroad, British soldiers were given farms, which had been forcibly confiscated from the Irish peasantry. Irish people were pushed to the margins and forced to pay absentee landlords.

The potato’s appeal grew. The storage onion, for all its benefits, is not as fast to reproduce. It’s a biennial, taking two seasons to make seed. The onion you buy at the store has been grown for only one season—if you want to get seed from it, you have to plant that onion again and let it flower. If you are poor and hungry, perhaps you can’t afford to wait that long.

The potato is ready to regrow itself every spring, no waiting. And all you really need is the eye of the potato—you can eat most of a potato and still plant it. But the potato didn’t have the same disease resistance or genetic diversity as the sharp-flavoured onion; hence the eventual Irish Potato Famine.

Though not longer an agricultural staple in Europe, the onion remains a culinary essential around the world. And rightly so. Just frying up an onion is enough to fill a house with savoury smells and give the impression that dinner is well on its way.

Alas, it is a rare landlord these days who will accept a bushel of onions on the first of the month. But next time you go to a wedding do consider, if just for a moment, bringing the lucky couple an onion.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Poverty and a food price crisis

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

Now that we’ve rung in 2015, we can expect a higher total when our groceries are rung up at the store. According to the Food Institute at the University of Guelph, food prices in 2014 increased by 2.8%. Meat prices increased the most, with a jump of 12.4%. The Food Institute predicts that in 2015 food prices will continue to rise faster than inflation.

Low-income people are most by affected these increases. That’s a very large group including people on employment insurance, Ontario Works, or disability support, as well as underemployed and minimum wage workers, and students and retired people living on fixed incomes.

To learn more I sat down with Tara Kainer, who works on food security issues in the social justice office of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.

She explained that food prices are not the biggest factor in food insecurity: “As long as housing costs are so astronomically high, people just don’t have any room in their budget. You have to pay your rent or you’re out on the street. You have to pay your mortgage or you’re going to lose your house. Those things are not very negotiable.”

Whereas people can and do try to save money by spending less on food, which usually means buying less healthy and lower quality food, or simply buying less and skipping meals.

And a lot of people are in that boat; a 2012 multi-university study on food insecurity found that 4 million Canadians including 1.15 million children “lived in households that struggled to afford the food they needed in 2012.”

I asked Kainer if she expected to see changes in demand for food banks and meal programs because of rising food prices, and she told me that an increase in numbers was already apparent at food providers in Kingston.

Senior citizens—who often have fixed incomes—have already increased their use. But students are the fastest growing group of users, along with children. A 2014 report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) found the number of households using food banks had jumped by 20% since 2013. That’s a sign of a widening food insecurity crisis.

Some pundits argue—regardless of perpetually increasing costs for housing and food—that low income people simply need to budget better. Kainer dismisses this idea. “They do not need to learn how to budget. They budget better than any of us do because they have so little money. They make their dollars stretch.”

Ultimately one of the biggest impacts of food insecurity is poor health. People who can’t afford healthy food and a diverse diet are prone to chronic health problems.

To cut back on social assistance, Kainer explains, “is not helping anyone. To have poor, vulnerable, ill-fed people in our society, who will end up with all kinds of difficulties, especially health ones, makes us all weaker as a society and all worse off.”

A report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks found that in 2007 Canada spent $7.6 billion additional health care dollars because of poverty, and the price of food has increased dramatically since then.

So society does end up paying for food insecurity, but it does so especially through the health care system. People develop chronic illnesses which are expensive to treat, instead of having preventative access to healthy food.

It’s a tragic irony; in a supposed attempt to save money, Canadian society spends far moremoney on health care and other services, while causing needless deprivation and suffering for millions of people. And that deprivation, the research is clear, falls disproportionately on people of colour and indigenous people, single-parent families, and children.

As for solutions, Kainer points to that 2012 multi-university study which suggests an increase in the minimum wage, good jobs, higher rates of social assistance, affordable housing, a national day care plan, and a basic income guarantee.

Kainer is optimistic about the growing movement for a guaranteed minimum income. “As usual, politicians have to be pushed to implement these kinds of programs. And poverty isthe result of social policy.”

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit

Filed under: Newspaper Columns