When Wheat Was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Grain Trade by André Magnan (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
When Wheat Was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Grain Trade. By André Magnan. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016. vii + 198 pp. Figures, tables, notes, references, index. $32.95 paper.

André Magnan's interesting book does much more than its title suggests. The title implies the book will do what most histories of prairie grain do: end in the 1970s. Instead, not only does Magnan continue into the 21st century but the later decades are well researched, with extensive use of personal communications with industry participants allowing for a more nuanced discussion of Canadian grain marketing. This helps Magnan explain the complex relationship that farmers had with the government-mandated single-desk Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) and allows for an examination of the organization's ability to respond to more complex global markets including the more divided ones after the end of the Cold War.

Organizing the book around the concept of food regimens allows Magnan to place the domestic struggles between farmers, government, and industry, into the larger international context, which provides entry into the importance of the titular Canada–United Kingdom grain trade. The strength of the influence of this trade begins to appear during the First World War when the British requirement for wheat combined with the need [End Page 63] for price stability left "two key legacies: an early form of collective marketing and close Canada-UK coordination" (48). Magnan traces how these legacies helped to shape the creation of prairie agricultural policy prioritizing government involvement in grain marketing. Additionally, the development of the British milling and bread-baking industry, beginning with the introduction of roller mills that made it possible to process Canada's famous Red Fife wheat, was a critical factor in why British buyers sought Canadian grain and in turn how Canadian agricultural policy took British needs into account.

The United Kingdom was the first major customer for Canadian wheat and Magnan argues that even after the majority of Canadian sales shifted to other markets, the long-standing relationship with UK buyers allowed the CWB to experiment with alternative sales agreements for high-quality grain notably with the British baker Warburtons. The detailed discussion of how this contract was serviced alone makes this book worth reading. The success of the Warburtons agreement resulted in the CWB's introduction of identity-preserve programs for other Canadian grain types. The British also adopted this system for some contracts in their domestic grain market. Later, this quality-assurance focus became important during the Canadian debates over introducing genetically modified herbicide-tolerant wheat into the Canadian system.

At present, this book provides one of the better overviews of the last 30 years of grain marketing policy on the Canadian prairies and highlights how these domestic policies were the result of not just internal social changes, but were also affected by the place of Canadian grain in the international market. As it is relatively short, the book is forgivably weaker on public plant-breeding and agricultural practices but touches on them enough to make it apparent how they are involved in the larger narrative. Magnan makes a strong case that prairie agricultural policy cannot be understood in isolation from the markets the prairies served.

Laura Larsen
Department of History
University of Saskatchewan
...


pdf