Review of Magnan, When Wheat was King

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Reviewed by James Murton

André Magnan, When Wheat was King: the Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Wheat Trade. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016. 205 pp. Figures, tables. 978-0-7748-3114-7.

Think about wheat. Think about Canada. Now bring the two together in your mind. A photo of a CPR train passing a grain elevator, a field of wheat in the foreground. The Brandon Wheat Kings. “Wheat Kings and pretty things.” Alberta’s flag. Saskatchewan’s flag. Grain elevators on the waterfront in Montreal, Thunder Bay, and Vancouver, the latter visible from all over the city, monuments to the role of wheat in the building of Canada’s largest resource town.

In many ways, wheat really did build this country. Underneath the iconography, behind the jerseys, the flags, and the song lyrics, lay a very real global trade in wheat in which Canada was a major player. For many years British bread was made up largely of Canadian wheat. In this short book, Andre Magnan offers a comprehensive overview of the most salient features of the trade in Canadian wheat – and in particular, of the role of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) in it — in a text useful to anyone interested in the history of food, food regimes, and political economy in this country.

As a sociologist, Magnan’s major scholarly concern is less with the history per se than with the concept of food regimes, an idea most associated with University of Toronto sociologist and food scholar Harriet Friedmann. A food regime, Magnan explains, is “a set of implicit rules, institutions, and practices …” that structure food production, consumption and trade. Food regimes have typically been overseen by, and served the interests of, a central global hegemon — the UK before World War I, the US after World II, agri-food corporations now. One of the book’s standout features is a sixteen-page summary of the writing on food regimes, which has tended to occur in scattered scholarly articles.

The book is divided into four chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. In chapter 1, Magnan shows the emergence of the “UK-centered food regime.” The invasion of the Canadian prairies by Euro-Canadian settlers and red fife wheat was underwritten by, and linked with, the emergence of cheap white bread as the birthright of the British working and middle-classes. Britain before World War I was almost entirely dependent on imported food, and the arid conditions of the southern Canadian prairies produced a high-protein, high-gluten wheat perfect for making white bread. The CWB was a way of squaring the Canadian government’s urgent interest in maintaining the flow of prairie wheat to Britain with farmers’ need for an institution able to defend their interest against those of global wheat companies. In 1943, in the midst of food and financial crises brought on by World War II, Canada suspended trading on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and made the CWB the only legal buyer of wheat. From this point until 2012, Canadian wheat would be sold through only through the CWB’s “single-desk” system.

Following World War II a second food regime arose. This “mercantile-industrial food regime” was dominated by the US, which propped up its farmers through extensive subsidies and then dealt with the resulting massive surpluses via export subsidies (which made its grain cheaper to buy overseas) and Public Law 48, under which US grain was essentially given away as food aid in order to buy Cold War allies. Because of the amount of grain it controlled and especially because it dominated the highly inelastic European market for high protein wheat, the CWB was able to find for itself a crucial role in this new regime – setting the world price for wheat, which for almost thirty years was derived from the price for the highest quality wheat held at Thunder Bay. But Canada also used the Wheat Board to challenge the system by selling wheat to the Soviet Union and China, communist countries with which the US would not deal.

This second food regime began to unravel in 1972, when the US struck a massive grain deal with the USSR. This deal cleared global grain reserves and sent world food prices soaring. Meanwhile, new baking processes used by British bakers meant that Canada’s grain could now be more easily substituted with European grains, of which there was an increasing supply thanks to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CWB could no longer manipulate world prices. Meanwhile in the 1980s the Canadian government, in league with Australia and Argentina, decided to attack the US’s subsidy program as an unfair trade advantage. Calls for the US to compete on a level-playing field led the neo-liberal Mulroney government to withdraw some of the classic supports offered prairie farmers – guaranteed freight rates on prairie railways (the Crow rate), the end of a floor on prices paid by the CWB to farmers, and changes in farm income support programs.

The CWB again responded nimbly to changed circumstances, in this case, a more complex market with multiple, demanding, buyers. For example, Magnan highlights a deal with the British baking giant Warburton’s, under which prairie farmers produced specific varieties of wheat in return for higher prices. The CWB negotiated contracts on behalf of the farmers, coordinated the movement of these special orders through the Canadian supply chain, and spread the resulting revenues to grain farmers more generally. In 1998, reforms increased the Board’s autonomy from government and allowed it to more aggressively advocate for farmers’ interests, while new specialized contracts allowed farmers to sell their grain as if they were trading on the open market, while staying within the CWB’s pool.

Despite these reforms and successes, the CWB was a longstanding target of Stephen Harper’s conservative government, which argued it stood in the way of realizing “‘the true economic potential and entrepreneurial energy of the Western Canadian grain sector’.”[1] On August 1, 2012, the CWB’s “single-desk” system came to an end. In 2015, 50.1% of the CWB was sold off to G3 Global Grain, a Saudi-controlled grain company. Magnan ends with an informative and dispiriting look at the probable future of prairie grain farming – fewer farmers on larger farms producing low quality grain for which Canada holds no particular competitive advantage.

Magnan’s arguments are aimed squarely at fellow food regime scholars, who he urges to pay more attention to the particularities of agri-food sectors and the actions of state agencies — warnings likely not needed by historians. Of greater interest to environmental historians is his insistence on the importance of quality. He shows clearly how Canada’s production of high-protein, high gluten wheat was critical to the prairie wheat economy throughout its history, since such wheat was also “high quality” wheat for the production of the white bread favoured by European consumers. Thus the history of the prairie wheat economy is rooted partly in the soil and climatic conditions that produced this high-protein wheat. That said, Magnan does not really make the environment a central player. The high-protein nature of prairie wheat is largely treated as a given. The environmental implications of farming Palliser’s triangle, and of a future of larger farms, are not explored.

Magnan may find fans, however, amongst people looking to critique neo-liberal systems of government. In his careful scholarly way, he paints a picture of a large government bureaucracy that re-invents itself at crucial points, responding to changes in global political-economy while keeping the interests of Canadian farmers front-and-centre. In the age of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Magnan’s subtle, indirect – and so convincing and authoritative – defense of the role of government in a market economy may be this book’s most important legacy.

[1] “Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act Gives Farmers and Economy More Opportunities.” News release, November 2. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Accessed April 26, 2013. Web. Cited in Magnan, p. 149.

James Murton is an Associate Professor of History at Nipissing University.

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Jamie Murton is an associate professor and chair of the department of history at Nipissing University. He is interested in the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. His most recent publication is as the co-editor of Subsistence Under Capitalism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (McGill-Queen’s, 2016).

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