The politics of wheat

“No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the problems of wheat.” Socrates

Socrates was right: The Roman Empire needed a steady supply of wheat to flourish. Grain made into bread was the most critical element in the Roman diet, and the city required between 150,000 and 250,000 tonnes per year to feed its population. Rome imported most of its grain supplies and distributed a ‘dole’ of subsidised or free grain, and later bread, to about 200,000 less well-off residents, about a fifth of its population.

The Romans initially imported wheat from Sicily and Sardinia but later centred production on Carthage’s ancient city, in present-day Tunisia. In the second century BCE, the Emperor settled 6,000 colonists near Carthage, giving them about 25 hectares to grow grain. Later, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, the country became its primary supply source.

The Romans shipped the grain by barge to Alexandria, where they inspected it for quality and loaded it on ships for Rome. They transported it into sacks, rather than carrying it loose in the holds; ships transported an average of 350 tonnes, although some had as much as 1,500 tonnes. The ships were sail driven, unlike the Roman warships propelled by oarsmen. Sailing times from Italy to Alexandria in Egypt might be as brief as 14 days, but returning to Rome would have taken as long as 70 days as the winds were adverse.

Centuries later, Britain depended on wheat imports from its empire to feed itself and encouraged wheat cultivation in Australia and Canada.

In 1846, the UK abolished the Corn Laws, a system of tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grain introduced in 1815. (Remember, at that time the word ‘corn’ referred to all cereal grains, such as wheat and barley.) The government had introduced the laws to keep grain prices high and protect domestic farmers and (particularly) landowners.

The repeal of the Corn Laws was a decisive moment in British economic history. Their repeal lowered food prices, encouraged increased agricultural productivity, and freed up surplus labour to drive Britain’s industrialisation.

But the repeal didn’t just change England. As Dan Morgan wrote in Merchants of Grain,

“Parliament, with its stroke of repeal, …changed the world. Repeal of the protectionist system had opened England to the wheat of all the world, created incentives for the settlement of vast territories across the oceans, and established the conditions for modern international trade, with the new sea routes and modern trading empires.”

The pressure of cheap imports drove a steep decline in British domestic wheat production. At the same time, food became more affordable. Between 1840 and 1880, the cost of bread fell by half. By the end of the 19th century, Britain was importing 5 million tonnes of wheat per year, about 20 per cent of which came from Britain’s colonies: Australia (150,000 mt), India (300,000 mt) and Canada (450,000 mt).

On the other side of the Atlantic, early setters were dependent on imported flour from Europe, most often England, until they could produce wheat independently. Though corn saved the early settlements, many settlers didn’t like it. They baked a bread called ‘thirds’ which they added to the imported wheat flour: one-third wheat flour, one-third rye, and one-third cornmeal.

By the 1740s, the US was exporting wheat to England from the northern fields of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The US grew in importance as a wheat exporter after the American Revolution when the great migration into North America’s heartlands, along with the railroads, opened up new areas for farming.

Europe desperately needed this production, notably when their harvests failed in 1790 and 1807, and later, in 1860–1862. The Napoleonic wars (1803 to 1815) and World Wars I and II also led to spikes in wheat imports.

Wheat not only fed Europe during our numerous wars, but it also provoked conflicts. Writing in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, the British historian Peter Frankopan argues that the Nazis invaded Russia for its wheat. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, wrote that the Nazis opened the Russian front for ‘grain and bread’, to capture ‘the vast fields of the east (which) sway with golden wheat, enough to nourish our people and all of Europe’.

We will never know, but some argue if the Nazis had never made that dash for Russian wheat—if they had never invaded the Soviet Union—they could have won the Second World War. Is it possible that we all owe our freedom to wheat?

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

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