Strange Bedfellows: Contentious Coalitions and the Politics of GM Wheat *

Article excerpt

IN MAY 2004, BIOTECH FIRM MONSANTO suffered a major defeat in the public relations battle over genetically modified (GM) crops in Canada. Under pressure from a coalition of diverse farmer and social movement organizations, the biotech giant withdrew its plans to introduce GM wheat to the Canadian prairies. How was this coalition, described by friends and foes alike as a case of 'strange bedfellows', able to mount a coherent opposition to GM wheat? In part it depended on the coalition's successful "framing" of the controversy. While framing--the strategic meaning-making dimension of oppositional politics--has become a core concept in the sociology of social movements (Benford and Snow, 2000), processes of coalition framing are complex and as yet only poorly understood (Croteau and Hicks, 2003).

In this article, I examine the coalition opposing GM wheat as an instance of contentious coalition politics. The coalition opposing GM wheat forged an unlikely alliance between environmental and civic organizations, farm and rural lobby groups and the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), cutting across social divides including urban/rural, social movement/mainstream, and environmentalist/farmer. Nevertheless, coalition participants claimed strength in their unity and diversity. This example therefore offers analytically rich terrain for understanding under what conditions diverse social actors can construct a common political project. In coalitions, successfully assembling collective frames involves a two-level process of aligning organizational frames with coalition frames, and aligning organizational frames with core constituencies (Croteau and Hicks, 2003). In this coalition, the challenge was to reconcile sharply differing ways in which individual organizations approach contentious issues of biotechnology, the environment and farm politics. Individual organizations, in turn, had to mediate between the benefits of coalition work, namely the added legitimacy of working in concert with diverse allies, and the risk of alienating members.

Understanding the processes of cooperation and conflict through which diverse coalitions assemble common frames helps address two theoretical issues. First, it provides new insights about the conditions under which coalition politics succeeds in achieving its immediate goals. Second, it helps suggest under which circumstances coalition work can prefigure more durable political alliances, a process linked to the potential for coalition work to transform participants in ways that mediate political differences. From a neo-Gramscian problematic that acknowledges structural and discursive, as well as strategic and transformative dimensions of oppositional politics (Carroll and Ratner, 1994; Carroll, 1997), cooperation and conflict between groups speak to the possibility for a counter-hegemonic politics of agrofood relations.

On the substantive level, this coalition's success in challenging Monsanto raises important questions about the future of political struggles over biotechnology in Canada. The involvement of wide-ranging civic organizations, farmers' groups and environmental movements could signal a renewed democratic and popular impulse to controversies over new biotechnologies. By documenting the shifting landscape of agrofood politics, this case therefore contributes to studies of Canadian political economy and social movements, including environmental and agrarian movements.


A Gramscian Approach to Contemporary Social Movements

Carroll (1997) has argued that, among competing theories meant to account for the origins and dynamics of today's social movements, a neo-Gramscian approach is best able to bridge several theoretical, analytical and political divides. In particular, it retains a concern for the enabling and constraining effects of political-economic context, while also paying attention to issues of discourse and strategy among social movement actors. …