Posts Tagged ‘Turgeon Commission’

“When the Turgeon Commission submitted
its report in 1925, the case for government-sponsored, scientific
research as a guarantor of both fairness and efficiency in the grain
trade received a boost, albeit a highly qualified one. On one hand,
the commission concluded that the practice of mixing was ultimately
not harmful to the overall operation of the trade. Grain dealers
defended their mixing activities at commission hearings by arguing
that such practices provided a valuable service to Canada by finding
a way to dispose of low-quality wheat through blending with that of
higher quality. There was some truth to this claim; however, it could
not possibly have assuaged farmers, particularly those whose No. 2
wheat continued fetching No. 1 prices for profiteering grain dealers.
The commission’s report did, however, urge the maintenance of ‘an
efficient and adequately equipped laboratory for grain research work
and for the purpose of assisting the Chief Inspector and the Grain
Standards Board in determining the grades and the milling value of

Emboldened by the commission’s
general endorsement of science, opposition  MPs – with [Saskatchewan Liberal John] Millar once
again leading the charge – kept pressure of the government over the
specific question of protein grading. And, more anecdotal evidence of
Canada’s wheat producers missing out on protein premiums seemed to
appear all the time. Millar cited premium prices ‘on the American
side’ of 15 or 16 cents per bushel.  In February 1928, he moved in
the House that the statutory grades of Canadian wheat be amended ‘in
such a manner as to provide for including protein as a grading
factor.’  The call for scientific measurement of an invisible
constituent – protein – as a guarantor of ‘transparence’ in
state-controlled grading legislation and as a mediator of private
interest and public administration betrays what Ted Porter has
elegantly referred to as ‘trust in numbers.’ For Porter, the
pursuit and uptake of quantification technologies has been a strategy
for overcoming distance (read, a technology of ‘distrust’) in
conditions of modernity. Mere use of the rule-bound language of
mathematics, and,  a fortiori, of quantification, confirms
established scientific knowledge through putative exclusion of
subjective judgement. This applies equally to socio-political
affairs: ‘In science, and in political and administrative affairs,
objectivity names a set of strategies for dealing with distrust.’

Just how well numbers and
quantification are able to circumvent self-interest is, of course,
another question. As Porter points out, the public rhetoric of
scientific expertise ‘studiously ignores’ the unattainability of
full ‘mechanical objectivity.’  In the case of wheat grading, the
choice between two systems of knowledge – one based on cultivated
experience and seasoned judgment, and one based on explicit,
measurable, and quantifiable criteria – was not simply about
precision and fairness. As contemporaries saw it (and as will be
discussed more below), protein made wheat the world’s most modern
grain, and Canada the producer of the world’s most modern wheat.
Thus, to impugn the grading system on the grounds of its inability to
measure protein was to go well beyond the charge of mistreatment of
producers; it was to raise the spectre of a wheat industry lacking
the requisite science to keep  pace with an increasingly modern
world. As Millar’s colleague Thomas Sales had once remarked, ‘Here
is Canada the largest exporter of wheat in the world, and all we are
doing in grain research is being done in a little bit of a one-horse
place somewhere down a back lane.’

While Millar did not abandon his plea
for justice on behalf of farmers, it was his exhortation that the
government provide scientific facilities for the purpose of keeping
abreast of international advancements in cereal science –
especially those in use by milling and baking companies – that was
particularly effective. In this respect he built on anxiety-inducing
comparisons between Canada’s unscientific system of wheat grading
and evolving practices elsewhere. And, more importantly, he helped
open a chapter in Canadian statecraft in which new priorities and
novel strategies were brought to the administration of Canada’s
wheat industry. In January 1928, the Liberal government referred the
entire matter of protein grading to three distinct bodies: the
National Research Council, the Board of Grain Commissioners, and most
critically, to Parliament’s Select Standing Committee on
Agriculture and Colonization.


When predicated on inequitable
treatment of certain producers, the Millar-led charge for a
scientific grading scheme aroused moderate concern at best. His
evocative language (as well as that of his colleagues) for a Canadian
grading system bereft of scientific accuracy, however, incited
something closer to hysteria. The concomitant processes of settlement
and wheat-acreage extension, both straddling critical environmental
‘lines,’ could no longer be denied; both had exposed the economic
and socio-political implications of rationalizing grades according to
the grain’s external characteristics, as opposed to its important
chemical constituent – protein.  The real problem, as hearings of
the standing committee, which opened in February 1928, seemed to
reveal, was a critical loss of uniformity. The importance of
maintaining uniformity brooked no contradiction whatsoever, and
suggested the value of protein grading well beyond producer class
interests. Even those otherwise opposed to protein grading
specifically could not argue against the significance of achieving
uniformity in export shipments. When L.H. Newman, the Dominion
cerealist and opponent of protein grading, was asked, ‘Do you think
it highly desirable that our grading system should be made as uniform
as is humanly possible?’ Newman replied, ‘I certainly do.’

Anecdotal evidence of faltering
uniformity made its way from British grain dealers to Canadian
officials. In the winter of 1928, concurrent with standing committee
hearings, respected agricultural writer Cora Hind of the Winnipeg
Free Press
led a Canadian agricultural delegation on a tour of
British farms and related facilities. In her weekly dispatches to the
Winnipeg Free Press, Hind reported expressions of
dissatisfaction audible in the ‘old country’s’ grain circles.
British complaints also arrived in carefully worded letters. F.W.G.
Urquhart, secretary of the Liverpool Corn Exchange, wrote to the
Board of Grain Commissioners with some very serious imputations of
Canadian wheat: ‘There is no doubt whatever that, during the last
two years – 1926–27 and 1927–28 … there has been a very
serious deterioration in the quality and condition of Canadian wheat
shipments.’ Then, speaking specifically to the issue of uniformity,
Urquhart reminded, ‘regularity of standard from year to year is
essential.’ In a letter of the same date to Mackenzie King,
Urquhart used stronger language still, pointing out that while
complaints of Canadian wheat were once ‘few and far between,’
they had been increasing, and that the trade’s confidence in the
Canadian Certificate Final was ‘badly shaken.’

The uniformity imperative poses a
question: Why protein? Why were officials intent on codifying protein
– as opposed to, say, vitamin B, or starch – as the specific
constituent guaranteeing such uniformity? Protein grading had nothing
to do with nutrition.  What protein selection was about is a rather
complex matter. As noted, wheat from Prairie Canada, at least from
certain regions within the West, was renowned as a high-protein
product. Few of the world’s wheats – not Australian; not
Argentinean; not, for the most part, Danubian; and only small amounts
of American – could compare with the high protein values of the
Canadian product.  Marketing Canada’s wheat to better effect was
considered in the national interest as a whole, and it therefore
seemed utterly absurd to many that the very factor making Canada’s
wheat so well known, and so valuable, was not even codified in the
grading system – and this in an increasingly competitive
international market. ‘If I were any one of you Canadians,’ an
American ‘marketing specialist’ urged, ‘I should certainly try
and open that door [of protein grading].’

Selling more wheat was certainly a
prime impetus, and any means by which sales could be increased were
at least considered. But protein grading promised more than a
marketing coup in the vulgar sense of merchandising. In fact,
uniformity of shipments was understood as the supply-side logic of
two powerful narratives in modern-era wheat consumption. First, as a
steady stream of wheat experts before the standing committee implied,
sometimes unwittingly, the necessary end-product of wheat was bread,
and that bread has an optimal form of being. Wheat protein, known as
gluten, produced a loaf of bread that was voluminous, fluffy, and
‘well piled.’  As yeast converts sugar into carbon dioxide gas,
thus causing bread dough to rise, how far that dough rises depends on
the protein’s combined properties of elasticity and strength.
Speaking at one point of the value of protein in wheat, Dr Birchard
failed to notice his own taken-for-granted sense of what constitutes
bread. Birchard noted ‘the most characteristic property of wheat
flour is due to the presence of gluten, since without this substance
it would not be possible to make a loaf of bread at all.’

A member of the committee ventured a
question, seeking qualification of the comment: ‘To make a bread
that will rise?’ he asked. It was hardly a noticeable exchange, but
for all its brevity and apparent banality it revealed a second
narrative of wheat consumption with very broad purchase in both
popular and scientific circles. Wheat, owing in large part to its
ability to produce loaves of bread, was assumed to have been the
staple carbohydrate source of advanced Western cultures. Sir William
Crookes, president of the British Association, certainly thought so.
Approximately three decades earlier, in a much-discussed and
frequently quoted paean to wheat consumption, Crookes asserted: ‘We
are born wheat-eaters … other races vastly superior to us in
numbers, but differing widely in material and intellectual progress,
are eaters of maize, rice, millet, and other grains.’

Crookes’s observations had a pretence
of anthropological rigour, but also reflected currents in social
evolutionary theory, particularly when he stressed how the
accumulated knowledge of ‘civilized mankind’ pointed invariably
to wheat as a nutritionally superior cereal. Wheat-consuming
societies, Crookes’s logic ran, reflected a greater acquired
capacity for recognizing nutritional value in certain foods and
would, therefore, conquer in the struggle for social survival.
Quoting and expanding Crookes’s words years later, the Wheat
Advisory Committee in London, England, explored two sides of the
apparent connection between wheat and cultural progress. On the
elective  side the committee observed, ‘Wheat is unquestionably the
pre-eminent bread grain of civilized races,’ and then queried, ‘to
what is this universal appeal of wheat due?’ The answer to this
not-so-rhetorical question came

in two parts. The first dealt with
colour, and ‘explained’ that ‘with the march of progress from
primitive to modern conditions there is increasing demand for a bread
that is white.’ The second part of the answer dealt with the
structure of bread, a theme even more germane to Canadian hopes:
‘Wheaten bread is more palatable to most people than breads made
from other grains. This circumstance is due primarily to the unique
character of the wheat flour protein, known as gluten, which on the
addition of water exhibits the property of becoming viscid … The
proteins of barley, rice and oatmeal fail to become viscid with water
and are therefore unsuitable for bread-making.’ However, the link
between advanced cultures and bread from high-protein wheat was more
than gustatory and aesthetic, more than merely elective. To observe
any given society as wheat-consuming was to describe a whole set of
up-to-date technical, political, scientific, cultural, economic, and
philosophical practices that would invariably prevail in that
society. It was, moreover, a matter of racial significance to speak
of ‘that consistent wheat-grower, the Anglo-Saxon.’   In short,
wheat-eaters were regarded as inheritors of the Mesopotamian
Neolithic, descended in a seamless progression from ‘pre-history’
through Christian, and then, Greco-Roman ‘advances’ toward
Enlightenment rationality, liberal democracy, and industrial-capital

Some of the clearest statements on
these themes emerged after 1929 as wheat-exporting nations, faced
with soaring world production and plunging rates of effective demand,
assessed future prospects for integrating non-wheat-eating regions
into wheat-based economies.  Prospects for this were grim in the
short term, but a long-term transition to wheat consumption could be
expected so long as certain conditions were met. Whereas wheat had,
‘since the dawn of history,’ ‘been the staple foodstuff of the
most advanced civilizations,’ it would take ‘abandonment of
primitive customs and urbanization of populations,’ as well as
‘raised standards of living following improvement in economic
conditions to encourage wheat consumption in erstwhile traditional
societies’ (this applied almost uniformly to ‘rice eaters’).
These narratives energized standing committee debates. Significantly,
the logic worked in both directions. If wheat consumption could be
expected through a general increase in a society’s standards of
living, it followed that any society already consuming wheat already
enjoyed advanced production, that is, wheat handling was mechanized
and industrialized.  The earliest testimony to ‘confirm’ this
mechanization trope came from the American baking industry via
William Schnaidt, ‘marketing specialist’ from North Dakota.
Schnaidt identified high speed, powered machinery as singularly
responsible for high protein demands, noting that American bakers
‘have installed machinery that operates at considerable speed, and
they tell me it is necessary to have a strong gluten, or strong flour
to stand up under this high-speed working machinery.’  

None of this mattered very much if
uniformity could not be achieved. Mechanization of both milling and
baking practices necessitated, it was argued, uniform ‘wheat
parcels.’ With mechanization came a continuous dough-making
process, meaning that ‘dough lots’ were no longer handled as
individual packages. The continuous process essentially removed any
chance for the baker to make lot-specific choices about the flour to
employ: the ‘baker has not the ability, or the opportunity that the
housewife has with her dough.’ ‘The baker cannot experiment much
because he works with large batches and one batch spoiled means quite
a loss to him.’ By contrast, ‘if the housewife spoils a batch of
bread, why there is not much loss. We look pleasant and eat it
anyway.’ In other words, not only was the ability to grade by
protein levels considered desirable as a means of satisfying certain
bread tastes, it was perceived as an  inevitable  development in
provisioning raw materials for a mechanized mode of bread production.
Here, Canadian officials applied F.W. Taylor’s vision of
‘scientific management’ in reverse.  Whereas Taylor argued for
the separation of work tasks into distinct component motions, here
was a struggle to ‘plug’ already separated tasks into a process
newly perceived as whole, consonant, and seamless. Of course, there
was nothing novel about the idea that Canadian wheat became British
bread. What made this discussion new was its articulation of an
emergent chemical analogy, which altered the debate’s terms
considerably: If grain inspectors, however ‘expert,’ subjecting
wheat to visual examination could not detect subtle differences in
the grain’s chemical (protein) properties, machines certainly could
do so. There was no fooling a dough-mixing machine. With a grading
system positioned (literally, in fact, but also figuratively) between
a changing Prairie West and a new paradigm of mechanical production,
Canadian officials began to sense that system’s inability to make
these separate component parts of a larger productive whole ‘legible’
to the other.

An interim
(though it became permanent) strategy in pursuit of this objective
was to map the Prairies’ protein zones. As of 1927, Dr Birchard
(reinstated as chief chemist of the GRL ) was instructed to sample
export wheat cargoes, ascertain their mean protein content, and plot
his findings on maps of the Prairies. Birchard set about confirming
his findings, which were published as brightly coloured hatchings on
blank maps, by applying the era’s leading ‘scientific’
safeguard in wheat assessment, the bread-wheat baking test. In
combination, these techniques (protein maps and baking tests)
facilitated a clearer state ‘vision’ of the production spaces
being rationalized, and both, subsequently, produced empirical
evidence that Canada’s grading criteria were not calibrated to
mechanized bread production, at least as it was understood from
standing committee evidence.

His results were most telling…
Birchard’s results demonstrated in dramatic form that different
parcels of wheat bearing the same grade designation could produce
bread of markedly different volume (a linear expression of quality in
Canadians’ minds). Furthermore, presumably inferior ‘grades’
could outperform their superiors insofar as baking was concerned –
again, measured in terms of the loaves’ volume. The necessity of a
newly rationalized vision for the West, and even, perhaps, of a fully
integrated protein-grading system, thus received the empirical
support it needed. While the finer points of grading by protein
content remained somewhat moot, Birchard’s findings brooked little
discernible dissent over the ultimate importance and value of
quantifying Canadian wheat’s quality; they left little doubt about
the need for such a strategy in the modern wheat economy.”

– John F. Varty, “On Protein,
Prairie Wheat, and Good Bread: Rationalizing Technologies and the
Canadian State, 1912-1935.” The Canadian Historical Review, Volume
85, Number 4, December 2002. Pp. 735-744


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