Stuart Laidlaw's Secret Ingredients
began as a probing series of articles on agriculture issues commissioned by the Toronto Star
. Not content to simply report on hot-button issues from mad cow disease to genetically modified (GM) food and factory farming, Laidlaw develops a monumental reflection on just what these agrarian trends have to say about the international development of post-20th century capitalism--and Canada's unique position within the global economy. As Laidlaw sees it, Canada's agricultural marketing boards are critical in defining the country's nationhood; their efficiency at bringing products to market while protecting farmers' ability to earn a decent wage has opened Canada to attack from the World Trade Organization, often at the behest of other nations (e.g. New Zealand and the U.S.) that have their own, albeit less scrutinized, protectionist policies. Canadian "marketing boards should be models for the world," Laidlaw opines, "not a target at trade talks."
The original investigative series earned Laidlaw a spot on the Star's editorial board. He's refined his research into a book that owes its organizational structure--one chapter per menu item of a typical farm meal--to Margaret Visser's popular Much Depends on Dinner, but the arguments Laidlaw dishes up have less to do with Visser's delicious culinary history than the biting social critique of farmer and essayist Wendell Berry in such books as The Art of the Commonplace and In the Presence of Fear. Yet Laidlaws sly humour ensures that Secret Ingredients is anything but dry. Discussing a model farm where biotechnology promoter Doug Powell conducted a "survey" of consumers selecting corn from clearly-labeled bins of GM and non-GM corn at "Farmer Jeff" Wilson's roadside stand, Laidlaw points out how these labels helped skew the results: "The sign over the conventional corn read, 'Would you eat wormy sweet corn?' It is the only time I have seen a store label its own corn 'wormy.' The sign then went in to list the chemicals sprayed on the corn to kill bugs and weeds and the fertilizers used. Over the GM corn, the sign read, 'Here's what went into producing quality sweet corn...' The descriptions of the corn as either 'wormy' or 'quality' were not mentioned in Powell's presentations." Though Powell widely reported that 69 per cent of customers surveyed said they would prefer GM corn over conventional, Laidlaw concludes that the heavily-biased labeling may prove the opposite: "Perhaps the choice by Wilson's customers to take home more than five thousand cobs of wormy corn rather than buy 'quality' Bt corn [corn genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis, a gene inserted into the corn DNA to make it toxic to insects] showed some pretty deep misgivings about GM food." --Deirdre Hanna
About the Author
is a member of the Toronto Star
’s editorial board, and has led the newspaper’s coverage of farm and agricultural issues in Canada.