Canary Seed Bird
Canary seed was once thought only to be for the birds, but now growers are looking to introduce its healthy properties to the human food market.
Across Saskatchewan, about 300,000 acres of prime farmland has gone to the birds.
But it didn’t go for a song.
Saskatchewan is the world’s leading producer of bird seed, or more specifically, canary seed, the key component in seed mixes for wild and pet birds from Bogota to Barcelona.
“That surprises a lot of people,” says David Nobbs, who grows canary seed on his farm near Lancer. “A lot of people don’t know that canary seed is used to feed canaries, that’s where the surprise starts! Even some farmers don’t realize that.”
Canary seed is a cereal grain native to the Canary Islands, a Spanish protectorate off the coast of West Africa. The islands were named for the Latin word canariae, which means dogs. Both canary seed and canary birds were named for the islands.
The pleasure of keeping caged canaries—and feeding them canary seed—spread from Spain throughout Europe and Latin America, where bird keeping is still popular today.
Farmers in Saskatchewan, particularly around the towns of Eston and Eatonia, began growing canary seed in the 1970s, according to Glenn Byrnes, a retired farmer and Chair of the Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan (CDCS).
At the time, prices for wheat and other traditional crops were low and farmers were looking for new money-making markets. They liked canary seed because it grew well and was not subject to the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board. In other words, they could pursue their own clients at their own price.
Today, Saskatchewan grows 80-90 percent of the world supply of canary seed. Compared to other crops, canary seed usually earns an equal or higher price per bushel, representing about $1 billion annually.
However, the canary seed market has taken a hit in recent years. Recessions in Europe, the United States, and Latin America have reduced the pet bird population as well as discretionary spending on wild bird food.
For that reason, canary seed farmers are pursuing a new market: human food.
“It’s got a really nice clean flavour,” says Carol Ann Patterson, a novel-food researcher in Saskatoon. “The two colours are quite distinct, so brown-coloured canary seed would look good in whole grain bread, while yellow canary seed has a really nice golden colour that we used in pasta, bread, crackers, tortillas, muffins, cookies, and energy bars.” It could also replace sesame seeds, which are a serious allergen, on hamburger buns.
Patterson has found anecdotal evidence that canary seed was used to make bread and porridge in times gone by, and perhaps even whiskey. In Spanish-speaking countries, where canary seed is known as alpiste, it’s often sold as a health food supplement with broad but dubious medical claims.
“I also found evidence that Canada was importing it in the late 1800s along with caraway seed, fenugreek, and mustard,” she says.
However, it is currently not approved for the human food market in Canada or the United States. Efforts to change that began in the 1990s when University of Saskatchewan plant scientist Dr. Pierre Hucl began work to breed new varieties of canary seed that are better for farmers and the human food market.
Canary seed is naturally brown with little hairs, or spicules, that are extremely itchy for farmers who handle it and an irritant to breathe. New varieties developed at the U of S have hairless hulls and an appealing yellow colour.
At the same time, research into the nutritional aspects of canary seed found it high in unsaturated fats and protein when compared to other cereal grains and, unlike wheat, it is gluten free.
In 2006, the CDCS was formed for the express purpose of collecting a levy from canary seed farmers to pay for the “novel food” process. Patterson was engaged to oversee more in-depth toxicological, chemical, and nutritional analysis and to complete a detailed submission for “novel food” approval to Health Canada.
That submission was made in March. This summer, a similar submission will be made to regulatory authorities in the United States.
“That’s exciting,” says Patterson. “Especially for canary seed farmers, it would give them another market to expand into for a crop that works really well for them.”
But will consumers bite into canary seed? Perhaps the flavour and nutrition will win us over before the novelty wears off.
Amy Jo Ehman lives in Saskatoon and is the author of Prairie Feast: A Writer’s Journey Home for Dinner. Link to her blog “Home for Dinner.”
Read all the stories that appeared in the Summer 2013 issue when you Subscribe now to our print and/or digital version.
Note: Comments are moderated so once you make your comment, allow 24 hrs for your feedback to show up on our website. If you have any questions email us at email@example.com.