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A Whole World to Grain: The Hidden History of Wheat

Issue 280

How grain production and trade have affected the global economy and shaped the modern world.

Bennett Baumer Jun 15, 2023

Oceans of Grain by Scott Reynolds Nelson is a unique work of economic history. While sweeping in its scope, the book is concise in a genre of doorstoppers, with a simple premise: Grain production and trade have shaped the modern world. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire relied on chumaki wagons to bring wheat from what is now Ukraine, feeding the armies that conquered the steppes and giving rise of the port of Odessa. Half a world away, the United States expanded westward, dispossessing Native American tribes and transporting Russian grain strains to the Great Plains. And in the 14th century, Nelson writes, the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, traveled in the bellies of the fleas that bit rodents in grain shipments and spread the Black Death to Europe and northern Africa. 

Nelson’s central character is Israel Lazarevich Gelfand, better known by his revolutionary name Parvus. His family escaped pogroms in what is now Belarus when he was a child and settled in Odessa, where they traded grain. From this upbringing, Parvus became both knowledgeable about international trade and relations and a revolutionary committed to bringing down the Russian empire. 

The Russian grain shipped from Odessa to Europe in the mid-19th century led to the explosive growth of what Parvus called “consumption-accumulation” cities. “Labor and capital accumulated where food was cheapest. Cheap food arriving by water meant that cities with the deepest docks thrived,” Nelson writes. “Reformers and capitalists huddled poor people fresh from the countryside into workhouses where they assembled goods from foreign and domestic sources: matchsticks, pencils, hard candy, lead toys, wooden boxes, and combs.” The cheap grain fed cities’ growth — Paris, London, Liverpool, Antwerp and Amsterdam doubled in population from 1845 to 1860 — and spurred investments in buildings, machinery, factories and infrastructure such as sewers and rail transportation. 

In the United States, Alfred Nobel’s dynamite was put to use to widen and deepen waterways and clear the way for the railroads that would transport Midwestern grain to New York Harbor for shipping to hungry European capitals. 

Not surprisingly, Oceans of Grain argues that grain played a key role in the Civil War. The merchant North invested heavily in railroads to transport crops from agricultural areas like the South — but to fully realize a profit, they needed to transport consumer goods as well. When railroads set up stations in non-slave states, shops and markets grew in the downtowns surrounding them. In Southern towns and expanding slave areas in Missouri, that didn’t happen so much. 

“[S]lavery helped produce a society with an insubstantial middle class of resellers and consumers of Eastern goods,” Nelson writes. “Impoverished enslaved people couldn’t buy cloth, razors, plate glass or hard candies. Without a sturdy middle class of consumers, no one would erect stores to sell Eastern goods in interior regions.” 

While Northern merchants and financiers joined ­forces with abolitionists to bring down the plantation South, Nelson says, they despised slavery not on moral but on economic grounds. 

Nelson can be forgiven for his grain enthusiasm, but his portrayal of slavery-hating Northern merchants and financiers needs revision. The slave trade made many of them wealthy. The banks that would later merge into J.P. Morgan’s financial empire accepted slaves as collateral for loans to plantations (as Russian banks did with serfs before serfdom was abolished in 1861) and would repossess African-Americans if the slavers defaulted. New York Life and other insurers sold policies to Southern planters to protect them against the risk of slaves escaping to freedom or master’s violent temper going too far. During the Civil War, New York’s Democratic mayor floated the idea of the city seceding from the Union to protect its lucrative cotton trade.

By the 1870s, the United States had displaced Russia as Europe’s main grain provider, with steamships bringing it across the Atlantic and Europe adopting financial systems including the gold standard and commodities futures markets. A drought in 1890–91 suppressed Russian grain yields and raised food prices so high that peasants and workers starved. 

In the wake of that starvation and another Russian-Turkish war, Parvus agitated against the Russian empire and forged friendships with what would become the Bolshevik leadership. He published left-wing newspapers, acted as an agent to the Young Turks revolting against the Ottoman empire and the German state, helping to arrange the sealed train that carried Vladimir Lenin and supporters to St. Petersburg in 1917. Parvus also became a wealthy grain trader (as well as a gun runner, Oceans of Grain hints). By the October Revolution, while still identifying politically as a Bolshevik, he was a multimillionaire. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and others disowned him. 

The book ends with the bloodbaths of World War I and the Russian Civil War. Parvus died in Berlin in 1924. Two of his sons would become Soviet diplomats; one was purged by Joseph Stalin, but he miraculously survived the gulag to write about it. In the Ukrainian wheat lands, Stalin’s agricultural policies, intended to destroy land-owning peasant kulaks’ economic power and establish collective farms, proved disastrous. As grain harvests plummeted, the Stalin regime demanded that grain stores be shipped to the cities, resulting in the mass starvation and death Ukrainians now call the Holodomor. 

Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World
By Scott Reynolds Nelson
Basic Books, 2022

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