Book Review: Oceans of Grain

Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade World History. (Basic Books, 2022) Kindle Edition

Much recent discussion about world economics and global power, say the last 60 years or so, has focused on petroleum, and occasionally on food. Too much dependence on foreign oil, or OPEC or Russia manipulating the price of oil, or peak oil, and what have you seemed to dominate the headlines at least yearly, with dire predictions about the world’s dependence on oil producing countries. Wheat only appeared when there was a famine somewhere, or someone embargoed someone else (US and USSR, 1979-81, for example) Scott Nelson argues that wheat is far, far more important. Food is life, and control of food is what allows empires to form or fall.

Nelson’s specialty was US history, focusing on the Civil War and the role of food supplies. He grew interested in Russian attempts to mimic the US’s success with wheat, and ended up discovering the writings of the Russian exile Israel Helphand, who wrote during the late 1800s- early 1900s as Parvus. Parvus, a Communist and son of grain farmers and grain traders, argued that control of wheat transport routes and wheat production, along with the industrial proletariat, would be key to bringing about a Communist revolution. Nelson uses Parvus’ writings as a launch point to look at grain trade and civilization in Europe, going back to the Neolithic and the discovery of how to safely store grain, especially wheats.

The western steppes of Europe, what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Russia, have been the source of wheats and other grains for thousands of years. The trading routes were called”black paths” because of the rich black chernozemic soil. Many of those routes formed in the late Stone Ages and continued in use first as roads, then as railroads. Nelson next looks at how empires sought to control food supplies, bringing grain from the periphery of empire (North Africa, eastern Europe, Gaul) to the metropolis (Rome). The Black Death and other plague waves interrupted the flow along the black paths, weakening empires or leading to major changes in how they arranged themselves. The black paths, and later flow out of the Bosporus once Russia expanded south and grain moved with Russia, were the choke points for empire. Then along came the US.

Nelson shifts gears to talk about how the Union Army’s supply chain failed. From that failure, caused by too-centralized a system that led to micro-managing, corruption, and price gouging, came a new way of buying grain through the Chicago Board of Trade – grain futures. This allowed anonymous purchase, which reduced gouging, and made it possible for the army to buy from a large number of individual dealers rather than depending on six warehouse men and grain brokers. The new system worked, as did early mechanization, and after the war, the US became the grain exporter supreme, sending cheap wheat all over Europe. The inexpensive food made Europe’s large-scale industrialization possible. Once Hungarian flour-milling technology also spread to the US, Americans could undercut Austro-Hungary (the former lead flour exporter) as well as inadvertently breaking the centuries old system of grain trading and shipping and storage. This put Russia in a financial bind much like the one that plagued the Austro-Hungarians.

World tensions, the need to control the wheat export points, and international finance, according to both Parvus (in the 1900s) and Nelson, led to WWI and the Russian Revolution. I’m not entirely sure that Nelson is right to put so much weight on wheat trade as a primary cause of the war, because a lot of other things were swirling around between 1910-1914, but his account of how Bolshevik control over the food supply affected the Russian Revolutions and civil war makes good sense.

Nelson is an excellent writer, although there are some disconcerting typos and awkward phrases in spots. He also assumes that readers are already aware of how futures markets work, and have a good understanding of geography during the various periods he addresses. I found myself having to stop, go back, and reread in places, because I’ve not tangled with economic history and world systems theory in several years. He also jumps from topic to topic a bit, but does return to the original theme and tie everything together. The book is very timely, and adds a dimension to the ongoing rolling disaster in Ukraine and the ripples in the world grain supply systems. Once more, the Bosporus is a critical choke point, and the closure of the black paths is leading to trouble (with “help” from other factors, some of which are outside human control.)

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the history of world trade, people looking at the role of food trade in European and US history, and students of the internal conflicts within the Russian Communist movement prior to 1920. The book is quite readable, provided you have a solid background in economic history and finance terminology. It needs more maps, but that is my usual plaint, and maps are easily available on-line if you want to find them.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the author or publisher for this review.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Oceans of Grain

  1. I was surprised when I was looking through middle school homeschooling curriculum, and encountered the Mennonite history program. It started “These are the six types of wheat, this is what each is used for, and this is where each of them grows. This is the most prominent driver of European history.”
    (Paraphrased. The quotation marks are for clarity, rather than precision,)

  2. A side note on this … Project Gutenberg Australia has a monograph on a man named William Farrer who created strains of wheat that could grow in Australia. Previous to his work Australia had to import or go without. The author is F. b. Guthrie. It’s a quick read.

  3. That sounds very typical for Mennonite, and highlights what happens when a variety runs short. The same paths let Mennonites export seeds from North America and develop mammoth sunflowers adapted to the steppes, then import the robust types again for the North American grasslands.

    Very interesting factor to confound with others, as shortages and crises develop.

  4. I find books like this very interesting, since wheat, which they say is not ‘technically’ genetically modified; however, it was created through intensive scientific hybridization to grow in a synthetic environment and designed to behave more like a chemical than food over generations… And the Mennonites histories are actually very good!

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