Oceans of Grain – America, Russia and Ukraine’s breadbasket in flames

Male farm workers rest amid bales of wheat holding their harvesting tools in the sun
Farmers harvesting wheat on a Ukrainian collective farm near Lviv in 1991 © Corbis / VCG / Getty Images

The world’s breadbasket is at war. Russia and Ukraine together account for about a quarter of the world’s wheat, and roughly 12 per cent of its total calories. Should the war interrupt the spring planting season – which it shows every indication of doing – poor countries and rich countries alike could face food shortages and steep inflation. That disruption of grain trade may in turn bring massive economic, political and social upheaval.

It was ever thus, according to an incredibly timely history of the global wheat trade by the University of Georgia academic Scott Reynolds Nelson. The subtitle is a nod to the fact that with the invention of explosives that enabled the building of the railways to the west, the US was able to transport its own heartland grain via rail and then by sea to Europe in the wake of the American Civil War . It was a sort of wheat dumping that contributed to the toppling of the Russian empire, which had previously fed Europeans from the rich soil of Ukraine.

This is where Oceans of Grain begins, with a detailed chronicle of the “black paths” made (according to Ukrainian legend) by ancient warrior-merchants, forefathers of the Cossacks, called chumaki (Turkish for “stick” or “spear”). Ukrainian folklorists believed that the chumaki were there seeding those fertile plains long before the various empires that eventually controlled the region. These travelers hauled leather, lead, slaves and eventually grain across the Eurasian plains, their carts making “black paths” – ultimately very profitable ones – as they rode.

This is a key point in the book: trade built empires, not the other way around. Nelson attributes this realization to a Russian grain trader and revolutionary called Alexander Israel Helphand, who grew up in Odessa during the second half of the 19th century, witnessing the 1873 agrarian crisis in which cheap American wheat, political upheaval in Russia, a financial crisis and the bursting of a pan-European real estate bubble collided and led to a massive economic downturn that changed the continent.

A black-and-white image of sacks of grain lie piled up near the harborside buildings

Exporting wheat at the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa in the early 1900s © Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Helphand pops in and out of the book. But the main character is really wheat itself – how and where it was produced, and how it shaped the course of history. Nelson makes a persuasive case that grain production, storage, transport and trade was the defining factor in the rise and fall of civilizations from Rome to Byzantium to the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia, as well as the key vector in conflicts such as the first world war (Central Power control of “the grain-bottling Bosphorus” threatened Russian grain exports, exacerbating the conflict).

The deepest and most fascinating square-off detailed in the book is the one between Catherine the Great and America’s founding fathers. Both used debt to purchase grain and fuel empire-building. Russia did this throughout Europe, where Odessa became the hub through which most of Europe’s food supply traveled; the US did it via westward expansion, in which wheat (which required less human labor than southern cotton) became the cash crop for northern farmers and coastal industrialists.

The civil war itself resulted in all sorts of advances in the production and shipment of grain, as well as the development of the Chicago futures market, which cut the costs and risks of delivery. This, combined with railways and the discovery of nitroglycerine, which allowed ports such as Antwerp to be widened and deepened, enabled a flood of US wheat into Europe. “Because ocean delivery was at least thirty times cheaper than land delivery with horses,” Nelson writes, “a deepwater port allowed an inland city like Antwerp to expand its hinterland far past its own borders in Europe.” Where grain was unloaded, bread – and many other goods – were now produced for burgeoning cities.

All of this reshaped class structures in Europe: peasants became paid producers and consumers of cheap bread, as well as people who could become rebellious when it ran out (Karl Marx paid close attention to the political economy of grain). The nature of war and supply chains shifted (the Prussians fed their armies with grain not from Germany but from Illinois, via Antwerp). Giant grain trading houses – Andre, Bunge, Continent, Cargill and Dreyfus – rose and their owners became some of the richest people on the planet (and remain at the heart of the global commodities sector today).

A black-and-white photo of freight train carriages on the approach to tall grain elevator structures

Freight trains and grain elevators in Texas, pictured in 1936 © Universal Images Group / Getty Images

There are times, particularly during the sections of the book that track the end of slavery in the US and serfdom in Russia, the rise of Marxism and beginnings of the first world war, when it feels like Nelson has bitten off a bit too much for a single book.

Yet after a chapter filled with a few too many facts or dates, Nelson will surprise the reader – how working-class Europeans in the mid-19th century became shorter because white bread rather than brown became more affordable (albeit less nutritious). Or how America’s European migrant boom in the late 1800s was made possible by the fact that many ships that went over with grain returned with people looking for a better life in the New World. These many fascinating details are worth the occasional syllable through complex and somewhat confusing history.

Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a book more relevant for our moment. The last time there was a major global food shortage, stemming in large part from a poor harvest in Ukraine and Russia, the Arab Spring was the result. We may be on the verge of a similar crisis.

Certainly, as China gobbles up the commodities that Russia can no longer sell to the west, we are reminded that grain and great power politics go hand-in-hand. As Nelson writes, “at its deepest level, an empire may be a monopolizer of food along ancient grain pathways that it never fully understands.” We are only beginning to understand what the latest shift in the grain trade may mean for today’s world.

Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the Worldby Scott Reynolds Nelson, Basic Books, $ 18.99 / £ 25 368 pages

Rana Foroohar is the FT’s global business columnist

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