Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World
This compelling argument that wheat plays a key role in the rise and fall of empires was released two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent grain prices to an all-time high and sparked supply concerns.
War and hunger are key themes throughout Scott Reynolds Nelson’s story of how wheat feeds the world. From Nelson’s first research visit to Odessa in 2011, just as the Bread Riots sparked the Arab Spring that toppled governments from Tunisia to Egypt, he travels back 12,000 years to the genesis of Europe’s breadbasket, in what is now Ukraine and Russia, and the ancient grain trade routes that later fed the continent’s cities and armies.
Dense with history, politics, economics, the University of Georgia humanities professor’s fifth book always remains light and engaging as it skims through centuries of grit. Its storage and shipping pass through Athens, Constantinople and Moscow, and the founding of the port of Odessa on the Black Sea, with links to other milestones, such as the first quarantines and the establishment of hamburgers and commercial investment banks .
This trade concentrates labor and capital in cities where food is cheap and ports are deep. Immigration, industrialization and urbanization followed, doubling the population of London, Paris and Amsterdam in 1845-1860. The United States rose up in the 1860s, when the Civil War spurred the adoption of wheat exports to obtain the hard currency needed to fight secession, and the Union army’s struggle to feed soldiers and horses helped bring modern futures markets to life on the Chicago Board of Trade.
These new financial tools are helping to create a more global food market just as US shipping is exploding, with thousands of ships flooding Europe with grain and bringing millions of immigrants back across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, faster travel between world ports, shortened by explosives used to deepen ports and dig canals and railroads, is helping to end Russia’s grip on world grain by offering European cities cheaper food. Nelson further argues that most scholars fail to recognize how the rise of Germany and Italy, the decline of Austria and Turkey, and Europe’s scramble for empire have all to do with cheap foreign grain.
The book is a financial history, and the best passages chronicle international commodity markets increasingly tied to wheat. Nelson, who notes on page 1 his obsession with the panic of 1873, traces that the agrarian crisis turned the financial panic and economic collapse of falling food prices and outdated financial tools into European bank failures, a Bank of England interest rate shock and a crisis reaching Wall Street.
The book goes back 12,000 years to the genesis of Europe’s breadbasket, in what is now Ukraine and Russia.
“Oceans of grain had flooded Europe, and periods of crisis in Odessa and much of central Europe had come to an end, sending shockwaves around the world,” Nelson writes.
The story ends a century ago, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, but still feels overall modern as it challenges readers to think more like grain traders and see the world not as clearly mapped nations, but rather like the crucial journeys of our food across the oceans. , rivers and ports that really write history.
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