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Genetically modified wheat in a petri dish.


Genetically modified wheat in a petri dish.

This PhD thesis turned into a book explores a question that intrigued its author: "Why did farmers reject genetically modified wheat in 2001 when they had already eagerly accepted genetically modified canola the decade before?"

Emily Eaton is a professor of geography at the University of Regina. She specializes in political economy and natural resource economies.

To answer her question, she conducted interviews with 43 farmers and industry people. As well, she did an extensive review of newspaper articles and commentary on the subject from 2000-2006.

Growing Resistance is as much a study of the culture and behaviour of farmers as it is the story of wheat. The book is aimed at the average reader who has an interest in the politics of food. But it could also be used as a reference book.

Eaton describes well the deep emotional and cultural connection that farmers have to wheat and how the grain co-evolved along with them.

Canola, on the other hand, she writes, has always been viewed as "the product of innovation" and a "baby of the scientific community."

Eaton does an excellent job setting the stage by addressing how Canada has regulated and promoted the biotech industries, often not engaging the farmers or the public in their decisions.

She spends time developing the understanding of the politics as it affects wheat and canola. The biotech industry, which was in favour of introducing Roundup Ready wheat, suggested that Canada allow it and the market would decide if it succeeded or failed.

The farmers, on the other hand, though they otherwise tend to support this free-market ideology, said that once it was released it could not be withdrawn because it is a living organism that self-replicates.

Farmers have had their own reasons for rejecting genetically modified wheat that consumers might not be interested in or can not understand.

But farmers have been able to articulate their opposition by engaging the public in a "discourse of consumption," that is, by asking is this stuff good for you?

Eaton describes how conventional farmers, who are usually wary of environmentalists, joined forces with Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Health Coalition and the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate to successfully stop the introduction of genetically modified wheat into Canada on May 10, 2004.

This was when the chemical giant Monsanto announced it would "discontinue breeding and field level research of transgenic Roundup Ready wheat."

Eaton concludes her thesis by asking an important question: "What about the next time a genetically modified wheat is proposed?" The same old arguments may not suffice.

She says that "producers must articulate with more force and clarity that the main problem with GMOs (and indeed the food system more broadly) is its corporate control."

Gary Martens is a senior instructor in the plant science department at the University of Manitoba. His area of interest is sustainable farming systems.