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Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming

by Stuart Laidlaw

Stuart Laidlaw, a member of The Toronto Star’s editorial board who has led the paper’s coverage of Canadian farm and agricultural issues, has written a compassionate and harrowing account of the burgeoning industrialization of Canadian agriculture since the Second World War.

Secret Ingredients is loosely structured as a tour around a dinner plate – meat, vegetables, grain, dairy. As sector after sector of the food industry is examined, disturbing commonalities emerge. Both farms in Canada and the companies that distribute their products are becoming fewer and larger, and the consequences for consumers of food – that is, every-one – could conceivably be disastrous.

Vivid images of victims abound: children in Prince Edward Island made ill by weekly chemical sprayings in the potato fields surrounding their homes and schools; Mexican labourers treated as little more than slaves in the hundreds of acres of hydroponic greenhouses in Leamington, Ontario; scientists belittled and discredited for daring to openly question the safety of genetically modified foods. Laidlaw makes it clear that all of this is done to swell the bottom-lines of the megalithic processing corporations to which farmers are becoming increasingly beholden.

But at a time when the discourse against globalization has attained such prevalence, Laidlaw seems admirably reluctant to polemicize. So while he does implicitly question the tendency of corporations like Monsanto and Philip Morris and political bodies like the World Trade Organization to treat food as an economic good rather than a human necessity, Laidlaw focuses more on the strain this places on individuals and their communities. Above all, it is the time spent talking to farmers, to whom Laidlaw accords the respect due to the people who cultivate our food, that raises this book from a skillful and eloquent presentation of data to a sincere and moving look at a way of life in decline.