Grappling with Grain

How and why an unlikely Canadian coalition defeated an agribusiness giant

The saga of genetically modified wheat in Canada is a fascinating story revealing the conflicting producer, agribusiness and consumer interests that emerge when scientific discoveries affect the way we grow and market food. Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat has an engaging tale to tell and a great deal to recommend it, although it suffers from an academic style and a polemical approach that may limit its readership to specialists.

The book grew out of Emily Eaton’s doctoral dissertation and focuses on the politics of genetically modified wheat. It asks a question key for anyone interested in genetic engineering and other forces driving contemporary farming: why was GM wheat not approved for use in Canada, while other genetically engineered crops such as canola were? In answering it, Eaton’s book casts an uncommonly in-depth look at the culture of farming in Canada.

The wheat in question was Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat, created in the 1990s and designed to tolerate Monsanto’s herbicide product Roundup. Weeds are a major pest for farmers in many crops, and the intended advantage of RR wheat to farmers was that they could spray Roundup while the crop was in the field, killing weeds but leaving their wheat unaffected.

The book has many strong points, in spite of its dense writing, and Eaton is at her best when describing the issues that have plagued the approval of GM crops. Her comparison of the factors leading to the adoption of GM canola and the rejection of GM wheat in Canada is particularly illuminating.

She frames these different outcomes in a full spectrum of crop characteristics, farming history, economic factors, government regulation, scientific advances and the implementation of federal policies designed to favour corporate agriculture. In the process, she reveals competing visions for agriculture and food that express the difference in the public’s mind between bread and edible oil, ranging from a populist, cooperative, farmer-driven system for wheat to the more agribusiness and science-driven model that developed in canola.

Wheat became a significant crop in Canada around 1900, at the same time that populist political sentiments were emerging. Farmer cooperatives that handle and market grain were formed as a result, including the now-defunct Canadian Wheat Board. Wheat varieties selected by traditional breeding techniques already produced high yields, so farmers did not see any agronomic need for genetically engineered wheat. Weed control also is not as much of a problem in wheat as it is in canola, and there are a number of herbicides to choose from that provide good control when needed.

Most significantly, Eaton tells us that producers generally save a portion of their wheat seed to replant in future years, eliminating the need to purchase seed from the agribusiness empire. Finally, on wheat’s side of the ledger, the crop has been present for thousands of years, with a mystique and culture around it that resist technological change.

Canola, by contrast, is a product of science, created by Agriculture Canada scientists who bred undesirable qualities out of canola’s predecessor, rape, resulting in an oilseed crop that yielded edible oil rather than the machine oils that were extracted from rape. These early canola varieties were turned over to industry, which developed methods of producing hybrid seed for planting that were superior to seed farmers could produce. Well before -genetically modified canola, producers became accustomed to purchasing seed from companies rather than saving and replanting their own.

Thus, science and agribusiness had already taken over canola seed production before GM varieties resistant to insects and tolerant to herbicides were invented. It was an easy transition for canola producers to buy seed and sign restrictive covenants about its use. Canola also did not have wheat’s historical ethos, and consumers were less resistant to using edible oil made from GM canola than they were to genetically modified bread.

The core of Eaton’s book focuses on why farmers were successful at stopping RR wheat’s approval after a battle that lasted from about 2000 to 2004. While growers drove the resistance, their success depended on an unusual coalition of farm, consumer, health, environmental and food industry participants. Eaton points out how unusual it is for farm groups to cooperate with organizations such as Greenpeace that are seen as urban and less practical than farmers, supporting policies that threaten conventional farming and having a radical in-your-face protest style not usually appreciated by more conservative farmers. Also, the common interest of stopping RR wheat drew together activist farm groups such as the National Farmers Union with mainstream producer bodies such as the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and the Canadian Wheat Board, organizations on the agricultural political spectrum that commonly find themselves on different sides of issues.

The coalition worked because each group focused on its expertise: Greenpeace raised environmental concerns, farmers were worried about the agronomic characteristics of RR wheat, and the Canadian Wheat Board and the National Farmers Union raised concerns about consumer acceptance of GM wheat.

Consumer resistance to GM wheat was the biggest worry, but many wheat producers who rotated plantings with canola were using RR canola and had an agronomic concern. They worried that rotating with RR wheat would double the chances of weeds developing resistance to Roundup. It is particularly interesting that many of the same farmers who were comfortable using GM canola did not favour GM wheat, emphasizing the specificity of their objections to wheat rather than to genetic engineering in general.

Suspicion was another factor driving producer concerns. Farmers inherently distrust everyone from banks to government, and secrecy around data and test trials did not endear the RR wheat proponents to producers. Agriculture Canada scientists were gagged in an early example of the government suppression of scientists that has now become epidemic. Corporations were seen as operating in their own rather than producer interests, and university scientists who often receive corporate funding were perceived as biased.

Experience with the approval of GM canola convinced many farmers that the Canadian government preferred commercial interests rather than producers. Eaton’s outrage as she describes government’s role in facilitating agribusiness interests over producers and consumers is well placed. The lack of transparency, establishment of advisory committees with membership that insures predetermined outcomes, reliance on industry research and suppression of public access to data upon which regulators base decisions are a continuing national disgrace that should infuriate all Canadians.

In the end it was consumer fear and producer apprehension about marketing a genetically engineered food that prevented the adoption of RR wheat. Most anti-GM campaigns have focused on consumer concerns, but wheat resonated more than canola because of the ubiquity of wheat and its image as the most fundamental of foods, the biblical staff of life.

Eaton also taps into a broader Prairie concern: who controls agriculture, farmers or corporations? One of the author’s concluding points is that producer antipathy to RR wheat hinged on the profitability of agriculture and control of food systems. Perhaps, but she does not provide strong proof that this was the case, and this section feels more like her own politics getting in the way.

Concerns about shrinking markets for consumers fearful of genetically modified organisms in their bread, pasta and cake would seem to be the more significant factor, and this market-based rationale for opposition makes more sense than the anti-corporate rhetoric that is consistent with Eaton’s personal politics. She writes: “producers and consumers must think hard about which discourses and strategies can successfully push back the corporate environmental takeover of food systems, regulations, and standards.” And then again: “the main problem with GMOs  (and indeed the food system more broadly) is its corporate control.”

Eaton wants farmers to be driving the farm-to-table conversation about how we grow and market food, but there are as many farmers comfortable with corporate partners as there are those opposed. For example, wheat farmers would likely embrace drought-resistant wheat in a climate-changed prairie if consumer concerns did not affect sales. Eaton’s anti-corporate stance may be the right one, but more nuance, cogent argument and evidence—and less rhetoric—would have been more convincing.

GM crops have been around for close to two decades, and it is a good time to ask whether the apocalyptic disaster predicted by some has transpired. In North America today, corn, soybeans and canola are predominately genetically modified, and a handful of other crops have been approved and are in common use. Given their ubiquity, it is reassuring that no cataclysmic health or environmental disasters have transpired, although GM crops are not without their problems.

Human health has been the biggest concern for consumers, and at this point there are no apparent health impacts from current GM crops. After two decades and widespread presence of GM crops in our food, it is hard to continue arguing that there is any danger to our health. Still, some say we have not waited long enough, or that most of the research has been based in industry or with industry-funded university scientists. And of course, lack of impact from today’s crops does not mean that future crops with new traits might not be harmful, suggesting that continued regulatory vigilance is desirable.

But there have been environmental impacts and concerns. Resistance is one; insects initially controlled by insecticides engineered into crops have become resistant due to overexposure, just as they have to field-sprayed insecticides. Many farmers have returned to spraying older and more environmentally damaging pesticides as GM crops fail to control the pests against which they were designed.

The success of herbicide-tolerant GM crop systems at controlling weeds also has become a problem. Fields of herbicide-tolerant crops like RR canola, corn or soybeans are virtually free of weeds, which has reduced populations of beneficial pests, predators and pollinators.

My own laboratory’s research has been on bees in canola, and demonstrates that wild bee populations thrive only when there are diverse sources of nectar and pollen. Eliminating weeds reduces wild bees and makes farmers depend even more on managed honeybees, which in turn are suffering from many maladies including the same nutritional challenges facing wild bees in weed-free monocropped situations. Monarch butterflies are in decline as well, threatened in part by lack of their obligatory milkweed hosts that are now absent in too-clean Roundup Ready fields.

The perceived threat of GM crops and the balance of evidence about their impacts to date have left opponents and industry in a stalemate. While industry continues to develop new GM crops, these are rarely approved, and the expected wave of genetically modified dominance in agriculture outside of the already-approved crops has yet to materialize.

Eaton calls for a new round of protests against GM crops, fearing that the dam holding them back will soon break, but it is not at all clear whether Canadian Prairie farmers will continue to resist GM wheat if industry creates crops with agronomic characteristics that provide a profitable edge. Consumer resistance to GM crops is weakening, and corporate pressure on government regulators to approve crops is increasing. It seems unlikely the coalition that fought-off RR wheat will be as robust or successful in the future as it was in the last round.

Still, if Eaton hopes to contribute to the forces opposing GM crops, she would be well served to work on writing for a less academic audience. Growing Resistance is not a feet-in-the-furrow book, but rather one replete with off-putting academic jargon.

Terms such as “neoliberal subjectivity,” “post structuralist” and “epistemological critique” permeate her writing, used in sentences such as “this is the sense in which the interview is an intersubjective production where meaning is not objective, but rather an ongoing interpretive accomplishment.” These phrasings were perhaps necessary to satisfy her doctoral supervisory committee but detract from what could have been a more compelling tale of the people, history and issues that surround farms.

And whatever your opinion of GM crops may be, the stories of the proponents and opponents are riveting, with passion and spirited debate on all sides. Food is among our most fundamental needs, and how to farm it, what to grow and who controls its production and sale confront us with some of the most critical decisions we make as individuals and societies.

Flawed this book may be, but it is worth the slog to ponder the issues beneath the language and rhetoric, as they represent some of the deepest challenges we face in making decisions about our own health and the environment around us.