We lost Larry Milligan and Anita Stewart this year, two Canadian agri-food giants who changed the very culture of the way we look at food here, as well as our access to it.
Writing about their passing is heartbreaking. I had strong ties to them both.
Larry gave me my break at the University of Guelph 33 years ago. He hired me to get the public interested in research via the media, and to help create a culture that supports it.
For her part, Anita was a kindred spirit in communicating with the public. As a food author and culinary advocate, she tirelessly underlined the intrinsic but poorly understood connection between agriculture and food.
Larry and Anita were committed to the best interests of the agri-food system. I’ve never really thought about them in tandem. But it’s fascinating to consider how their separate yet collective contributions set the table for the current and next chapter of food in our province.
Larry’s career at the University of Guelph started in 1986, when he was hired as the Dean of Research. He came to Guelph with a reputation as one of Canada’s top animal scientists and departmental administrators, having served as chair of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Alberta.
Larry arrived in Guelph at a time when huge changes were underway at many research-intensive Canadian universities. Increasing emphasis was being put on the research portfolio, as institutions recognized the excitement, prestige and support that accompanied a vigorous graduate studies program.
Administratively, that development included advancing the research lead from a deanship to a vice-presidency…a change that took place at the University of Guelph in 1990, when Larry became the university’s first vice-president of research.
He had many achievements at Guelph, but by far the greatest was the development of the OMAFRA – U of G partnership for research, now the Ontario Agri-food Innovation Alliance.
Through this initiative, which was renewed in 2018 for a 10-year period for $713 million, the ministry and the university work together to advance research and innovation that contributes to the success of the province’s agri-food sector and promotes rural economic development.
Research, laboratory, and veterinary capacity programs operated through the Alliance ensure Ontarians have access to healthy, safe food. As well, they help farmers and businesses have the information they need to be productive, sustainable and resilient.
All this means you see Larry’s legacy every time you shop for food and pick out Ontario-grown products. Farmers are huge supporters of research, and it was Larry and the team he worked with that modernized and formalized the province’s agri-food research system, so farmers would have access to new varieties and new approaches to food production.
Here’s the synergy.
For her part, Anita worked tirelessly to promote the farmers who produced the food that emanated from the program that Larry was pivotal in establishing. What a one-two combination.
Anita was widely and accurately regarded in Canada as the heart of the local food movement here. I’ve written about her often in The Grower, about her immovable, nationalistic, and pioneering perspectives on Canadian food.
Fruit and vegetables from our country were among her favourites, and she could describe them with mouth-watering accuracy.
But it was the assault on Canada’s beef sector that inspired her to start in 2003 what would become Food Day Canada to support beleaguered beef producers who’d been hammered by the BSE crisis.
“I said then, and I still do now, that if we don’t get behind these farmers and keep them in business, we won’t have them,” she told me for an article about Food Day Canada in 2017. “Then what? Wait for other countries to come and dump whatever food they have extra on our doorstep?”
That concern escalated when, a year later, U.S. President Donald Trump was pouring billions of dollars into farm aid for American producers. That gave U.S. farmers a leg up on our own producers who didn’t have access to such a vault.
Anita again urged Canadians to get behind those who produce and prepare food here.
“Nothing is more patriotic – or more environmentally responsible – than feasting on our local northern bounty,” she said. “Even though, for years eating locally has been a movement and a way of life for many Canadians from every corner of the nation, this year is a watershed moment. If there ever was a time to eat like a Canadian, cook like a Canadian and shop like a Canadian, it’s now.”
Anita uniquely understood and championed the connection between farming and cuisine, including the research that leads to new varieties. She worked with food scientists and others at the University of Guelph – which officially named her its food laureate – to create the first and only Guelph Food Inventory, way back in 1999.
The university has named scholarships in the names of both Larry and Anita. And rightly so. They blazed trails that allowed it to claim it’s Canada’s Food University. Theirs is an indelible legacy.