A (2nd) Conversation with Soren Schroder


Good morning, Soren. Could you please tell us what you have been doing since you left Bunge?

I left Bunge in June 2019 after six years as CEO and after 36 years in traditional agricultural trading and processing with Continental, Cargill, and Bunge. I am now trying to use my experience to help emerging companies across the full spectrum of the agricultural value chain.

What areas have attracted your attention?

I have focused on optimizing existing agriculture using modern technology: indoor agriculture, digital data around agriculture and food, natural rubber, micro-biological products that improve yields, carbon capture, and remote sensor equipment to monitor grain quality.

Aquaculture is perhaps also a piece that deserves special mention. Next to cultured meat grown in fermentation tanks, aquaculture is probably the most efficient way to transform feed into protein. It can make a very positive environmental impact as feed, sensor and data technology evolves further.

So too will indoor controlled agriculture, starting with leafy greens and quickly evolving into vegetables, fruits and berries. It is a sector undergoing a massive technological revolution, and it brings production closer to the consumer.

Over the past 75 years, the focus has been on increasing agricultural yields while at the same time reducing costs. It has been about growing enough calories. We still want to produce enough calories, but we now want to develop the right kind of calories in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, repairs the soil, and produces nutrient-dense food.

It is a new revolution: using technology to improve existing production techniques and regenerate soils. The goal is to harness the power of ‘Production Ag’ without all the adverse side effects.

The world is working to decarbonize the economy. Is that driving this new agricultural revolution?

Decarbonization is part of this new agricultural revolution, but there are other forces at work, all pointing in the same direction. For example, the demand for alternative proteins is driven by consumer preference for healthier food and concerns over animal welfare; it’s not just about carbon.

But it’s all moving in the same direction. Alternative protein was not created only because of a quest for decarbonization, but it’s part of the equation. You see this with new initiatives from the USDA and the new Green Deal in Europe. Both support the transition to the next stage of precision farming, where agriculture contributes to carbon capture or reduces farming’s negative impact on the environment. At the same time, it allows farmers ways to differentiate between the crops and products they produce.

I put indoor farming, genetics, data management, artificial intelligence, and robotics in the technology bucket. Am I missing something? 

I would certainly include soil health; it is almost a bucket on its own. Soil health is the key to unlocking many carbon initiatives and finding better ways to deploy and create plant nutrients.  The USDA and many companies are trying to figure out ways to monetize carbon captured under different farming practices and protocols. We must develop carbon capture standards. The USDA is best placed to do that, especially if it means financial incentives to allow farmers to change practices.

Carbon farming comes under the bullet of soil health. It is already happening but not yet at scale.  The scale will come with standards.

It seems that regenerative agriculture has a significant role to play.

There are – at least – two schools of thought on regenerative agriculture.

The first is where you let nature do its work, and you learn from the best practices that have been proven over the centuries. You don’t till. You plant cover crops.  You have farm animals that fertilize the ground, and you thoughtfully rotate them. It’s an integrated system where, over time, you create a healthy soil microbiome. Using modern equipment and data results in similar yields and possibly better profitability than you would get using traditional technology, chemicals, and fertilizers.

There’s another school of thought where regenerative agriculture means using all the tools in the toolbox. One tool might be CRISPR technology for seeds. Another might be advanced micro-ingredients for nutrient build-up in soil that can substitute for chemical fertilizers and eliminate some pesticides. It is about using technology to its fullest extent to improve soil health and capture carbon in a turbocharged way.

I think the result might be the same, but how you get there is vastly different. Big Ag is going for the second option, using every tool in the toolbox.

Big Ag faces a problem with consumers’ apprehension over and understanding of technology.  Consumer attitudes in the western world could ultimately prevent farmers from efficiently producing enough food to feed everybody and do it in a sustainable, healthy way. We need to find a way for the consumer, the farmer, and the technology providers to communicate and establish trust.

Thank you, Soren, for your time and input.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This is a short extract from my upcoming book Commodity Crops & The Merchants Who Trade Them.

Assets are essential – Raul Padilla

Raul Padilla is President, Global Operations, Bunge. He was previously CEO of Bunge South America, having served as Managing Director, Bunge Global Agribusiness and CEO, Bunge Product Lines since 2010. Bunge is the largest oilseed crusher in the world, with about 10 per cent of global capacity.

Good morning, Raul. Could you tell me how you got into commodities?

First of all, I have to tell you that this is a particular time for me. After 44 years in the business, I am taking my retirement at the end of this year.

I started my career in 1977 when I joined a trainee program with an André company in Argentina.  After an initial training period, I began as an assistant oilseed trader, working on trade execution, finance and shipping. I then became a soymeal trader on the domestic market. Later, I was in charge of the soybean oil exports to Latin America, after which I spent two years at André’s head office in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Did you stay with André?

I left André within a couple of years of returning to Argentina and moved to a locally owned oilseed crusher, Guipeba, as commercial director. In 1995 Ceval, a large Brazilian company bought Guipeba and, in 1997, Bunge bought Ceval.  It was almost a reverse-takeover. I became CEO of Bunge’s Argentine operations in 1998.

When did you join Bunge’s executive committee?

In 2001, when we did the IPO. At that time, we were a confederation of companies and countries that lacked structure. It made it difficult for everyone to work together. It became evident that we needed a marketing arm to bring together all our physical origination/production and destination operations.

We looked at various options, including merging with one of our competitors. We talked at length with Dreyfus, but we eventually decided that we would be better on our own. I helped A. Gwathmey, Bunge’s Ag. Product Line CEO at that time, put together a consolidated and central marketing arm. We opened trading offices in Geneva and elsewhere.

In 2010, I moved to White Plains to become responsible for Bunge’s agri-business segment, where I integrated the different divisions and companies within the company. I did that for four years, but I grew weary of the corporate side of the business. I like to run an operation and be part of the day-to-day action. So, in 2014, when the CEO of Bunge’s Brazilian operations (Pedro Parente) decided to leave the company, I asked to replace him.

Brazil is – and always has been – an essential piece of Bunge. It has been almost half of the company. In 2014 we had three divisions in Brazil: sugar, agribusiness, and food and ingredients.

Tell me a little about Bunge’s decision to go into sugarcane.

I was not in favour of Bunge going into sugar. I didn’t like it, not because I knew the sugar business, but because it made us farmers – and farming was not our business. Sugar is eighty per cent agriculture. Bunge is not an agricultural producer; it is a merchant and processor.

Anyway, that’s history, but I ended up being responsible for Bunge’s sugar and bioenergy operations until we merged it with BP in 2019. I continue to sit on the board.  We have a great partner in BP, and the team is doing an excellent job with the combined business.

Were the other businesses working well?

Our results were not what they should have been, and we decided we needed to make another adjustment. In 2017, we split operations into three regions: South America, North America, and Europe and Asia. I took the responsibility to integrate the South American functions. However, we were still not performing as well as the shareholders and we wanted.

So, at the end of 2018, we shook the tree again. Greg Heckman took over as CEO, and the company made changes in the board. Everyone knew that we had to do things differently. We had to change the way we were operating throughout the whole company. I like to describe it as ‘pushing the reset button’.

Does that mean you are now doing less trading and more merchandising?

We manage the mismatch between farmers selling and consumers buying. Addressing that mismatch forces us to have a market view. Sometimes the supply chain will give us a structural margin that we can lock in without thinking about it, but it doesn’t happen every day. There is risk in each of our supply chains. As part of our company reset, we have changed the way we managed risk.

Are physical assets important to trading?

They are essential. You need physical assets to receive, store and process agricultural commodities. You can’t be in the business without physical assets. Processing is critical in soybeans as you can either sell beans or process them into oil and meal. And as you move down the supply chain, you can market the oil in retail bottles or, for example, for biodiesel. We have 35 per cent of the packaged oil market in Brazil – a vast number of bottles!

If you are a grain exporter, you can buy and sell corn, but most importantly, you have the option to do nothing – to neither buy nor sell. You don’t have that luxury in an oilseed supply chain. Capacity utilisation is essential to efficiency. We at Bunge process 45 million tonnes of oilseeds each year. You cannot say, ‘OK, I do not see things clearly; I will step out of the market for a while.’ That doesn’t happen when you manage a crush operation.

People sometimes accuse trading companies of controlling markets.

The only thing that trading companies can control is their cost structure and risk appetite; that’s all.

Moving on to biofuels, is renewable diesel an opportunity – the next big thing?

It is at the centre of the strategic discussions in the industry.

Biofuels fell out of popularity when food prices rose in the 2000s, and there is a danger that history will repeat itself. I fear that food inflation and the food versus fuel debate is going to resurface. We won’t be able to avoid it, although the focus on climate change and sustainability will change the dialogue from last time.

In addition to the food versus fuel debate, the amount of CAPEX required to make a significant bet in the renewable diesel sector is substantial. It’s a big cheque, and you have to be pretty sure of what you are doing and the projected returns.

So yes, renewable diesel is a big thing – a significant factor that we have to consider. We will not rush in; we don’t have all the answers, but we are doing the work as things develop.

Are you worried about peak meat?

We are following this constantly, and the company has invested in alternative meat companies. We did so partly to help us better understand the changes in consumer demand and as an investment in an expanding sector. We debate meat demand constantly – at every commercial discussion.

How has trading changed since you have been in the business?

Today, everyone has access to the same information, real-time on their phone. It is how you interpret the data that is important now, rather than the data itself. We used to have better information, but now we all have to analyse the same information faster and better.

Now everything is immediate; we have instant communication with customers and suppliers. We also have quick access to our colleagues. Over the past year, due to the pandemic, we have all been working from home, connected by technology. We have run a global processing and trading business from home. It is an extraordinary achievement that demonstrates how the world has changed. It is incredible how things have changed so fast.

Would you advise a young person to join the industry?

Absolutely.  Our business is never dull. It changes from hour to hour and even from minute to minute. You can have one scenario in the morning and a completely different one in the afternoon. You have to rethink everything.

You will never be bored, but you will have to be on your toes 24/7.

Thank you, Raul, for your time and input!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This is a short extract from an interview that I will include in my upcoming book ‘Commodity Crops – And The Merchants Who Trade Them.’

Wheat is not wheat – Fausto Filice


Fausto Filice was head of wheat trading for Cargill before moving to Bunge in 2013. He retired from the corporate world in 2019 and now lives in Verbier, Switzerland. I asked him how the wheat market has changed over the years.

Wheat was the main focus of the trading floor when, in 1987, I joined Cargill Geneva after two years in their Milan office. The top managers in Geneva were all former wheat traders, and wheat was the commodity with the most opportunities. It generated the bulk of the profits.

At that time, trading meant making deals; wheat was the commodity with the most opportunities to make deals. The Soviets and Chinese were the big players. Striking supply deals with them gave you a significant advantage in market knowledge. Other governments were also willing to make deals secretly.  Some of the more notable deals were even kept secret from young traders on the trading floor for several days!

There were also government entities on the supply side: the Australian Wheat Board and the Canadian Wheat Board made secret deals with big buying entities; monopoly players dealing with other monopoly players.

Wheat feeds people directly and is the commodity that is most susceptible to government involvement.

It was also the period of big export subsidy wars; the US and EU were trying to gain market share and reduce their costly intervention stocks. The business was about having large trades in the books and then ‘bidding’ Washington and Brussels for the highest subsidies. It was when prominent global players like Cargill, Continental, and LDC had a significant competitive advantage.

All of this has changed over time as the wheat market has progressively liberalised and privatised.

How would you describe the wheat market today?

The wheat market evolved in the 2000s as the Black Sea became an increasingly prominent player. At the same time, we had the liberalisation of Canada and Australia, so those markets also opened to traders.

There are no dominant players in today’s global wheat market – and no more large secret deals.  Instead, many small companies are originating, marketing and shipping wheat from one or two origins, often serving specific customers with specific quality requirements.  Large multinationals like Cargill, Bunge and LDC try to compete with these smaller companies in the various wheat export geographies, but they are often the 4th, 5th or 6th player in these areas.

The large trading companies retain a competitive advantage: although they may not be the biggest in any of the significant exporting corridors, they participate in all of them.  Cargill is a big player in soft red winter wheat in the US, but they are not the largest. Likewise, they are big players in spring wheat from the PNW (Pacific North West), but they are not the biggest.  The same reasoning is valid for Bunge, LDC, ADM or Viterra. The result is that even though these companies don’t dominate trade flows, they have the best global overview of flows and, consequently, the global supply and demand.

Today the global wheat market is highly fragmented, with dozens of smaller niche players, strong in their origins but without a global overview. Only a percentage of what goes on in the wheat market is visible; many private deals are going on in the background.  It makes things interesting.

Over your career, you have traded corn, wheat and soy. Which do you prefer?

I prefer wheat. It is more complicated than the other grains. Yes, there’s a global wheat market, but, as I said, it’s a compilation of smaller niche markets that intersect within themselves, but only partially.

What advice would you give to a young trader in the wheat market today?

If you’re a young wheat trader, you’re most likely working for a company that is a niche player. It could be a Russian, Ukrainian or Romanian company working exclusively out of the Black Sea area. Or it could be a French or German cooperative. You will be a specialist in your region but ignorant of other parts of the globe. I would encourage you to learn as much as possible about the different areas and how they work.

For various reasons, different countries – and the buyers in those countries – buy specific qualities. The spreads between these qualities can be technical.

Wheat is not wheat. There are perhaps as many as 20-25 different types of wheat traded, and I would advise you to learn as much as you can about the relationships between them.

You can trade these differentials while learning to understand the nuances between the different origins and qualities and how and when they intersect. This knowledge will allow you to have an opinion on the overall direction of the market.

Agricultural commodities are weather-based, but you have to consider all the political drivers, whether a change in Chinese policy, Russian or Argentinian export taxes or Brazilian strikes. These factors are constantly changing. You have to be able to weigh those variables the right way. It’s like a never-ending game of chess.

Would you recommend a young person to join the sector?

Absolutely!  I find commodity trading more interesting than, say, looking at corporate balance sheets or bond yields. Commodities are much broader; they encompass more facets of the global economy.

Commodity trading is the pulse of the world economy.

Thank you, Fausto, for your time and input!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This is an extract from my upcoming book, Commodity Crops – And The Merchants Who Trade Them.

Women in Coffee

In 2020, I interviewed Shirin Moayyad of Sweet Bean Coffee for my book Crop to Cup and my blog. I now invite her back to take part in our ‘Women in Commodities’ series.

Good morning, Shirin. You have recently started selling a range of coffees produced by women. Could you tell me a little about your motivation for that?

There is a belief in my parents’ faith that if you have two children, one boy and one girl, you should educate the girl first as she is likely to have fewer opportunities in life than the boy. My parents raised me with this early belief in affirmative action.

When I talked with David Griswold, the founder of Sustainable Harvest, he told me that women-produced coffee is often better than men-produced coffee. Is that your experience?

Dave introduced me to Fatima Ismael, a lady cooperative coffee producer and agronomist in Nicaragua. In her case, and in the case of the women with whom she works, it is true that women-produced coffee is better than men-produced coffee.

Fatima compares woman farmers to women as mothers. We care for the earth as we care for our children. Of course, that isn’t the case everywhere, but it seems to be in the case for Fatima and Nicaragua.

David also mentioned that paying women for coffee means that more money stays with the family than when you pay men. Is that a factor in your decision to sell women-produced coffee?

The Partnership for Gender Equity – a spin-off from the Coffee Quality Institute – is one of the more prominent and more renowned initiatives around women in coffee. It estimates that for every dollar that a woman coffee grower earns, she will spend 90 cents on the household; a man would pay 40 cents. Even if those figures are not entirely accurate, they do give an idea of the situation.

Nicaragua is well-known for women coffee growers. Is it a cultural thing?

You are right; there are a lot of women coffee growers in Nicaragua. During the civil war, the men were away, and the women had to run the farms and work the land. It helped the development of women in farming in the country.

Women supply 70 per cent of the labour force on coffee farms in Ethiopia, but few are educated, and many are illiterate. In Brazil, by comparison, I met women coffee growers who tended to be from the higher echelons of society, well-educated and well-off. It doesn’t mean all women farmers in Brazil fall into this category, but that was my experience there.

But it can also vary within countries. If you take the island of Sumatra, there are two distinct regions from which we source speciality coffee: North Sumatra and Ace. Women dominate the supply chain in North Sumatra, but in Ace, men dominate the supply chain.

In Costa Rica, I came across two radically different lady coffee farmers. One was from an enlightened family background where, at the age of 14, her father taught her how to drive the family truck, prune trees, apply fertilizer and manage the entire farm. The second lady grower had been physically abused and nearly beaten to death by her parents and then her husband. They both told her that she was too stupid to drive a car or manage a coffee farm. The police eventually put the husband in prison, and the woman now successfully runs the farm with her daughter.

Abuse tends to stop when a woman starts bringing money home. In their book Half the Sky, the authors write about a woman in Burundi whose husband had abused her until she got micro-financing for a business. Once she did, her husband realized her economic value – her potential to bring money into the family – he stopped his abuse.

What is holding women back in the coffee world?

Women may grow the coffee, but they rarely own the land. Land ownership is a critical requirement for belonging to a cooperative. Everyone likes to think that cooperatives work to benefit everyone in the community, but they often exclude women growers because they can’t prove they own the land.

Not being a cooperative member means that women have less access to credit, agricultural inputs, training, and market information. They are denied leadership and are cut off from decision making. Also, not being a cooperative member often excludes women farmers from the training that many well-intentioned foreign NGOs might offer.

In many countries, women grow the coffee but men transport and sell it. Women not only have to grow coffee, but they also have to participate in the supply chain. When women are doing 70 per cent of the labour, you have to include then in the sale of their produce. They can, and must, contribute to making the coffee sector more viable, healthy, quality-orientated and profitable.

What more could we do to promote women in coffee producing countries?

As a coffee roaster and buyer, my personal choice is that quality comes first. If I am faced with two coffees of equal quality and one is produced by a woman and one by a man, I will choose the former. For example, I have recently started a line of Sumatran coffee made by a women’s cooperative. I had a choice of various equally good coffees from the region, and I chose the women-grown one. I will not discriminate against quality for gender equality.

If you are a coffee buyer and you have a choice between equally outstanding coffees produced by both men and women, I urge you to choose the one made by the latter. Encouraging more women growers will improve coffee quality and be beneficial for the families that produce it. Doing so will strengthen the integrity of the value chain and make it more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.

I understand that you have recently been crowdfunding for your start-up and to promote women in coffee. Could you tell me a little more about that?

I am crowdfunding to finance a new roasting machine. I started with a small roaster, but my business is growing fast, and I need more capacity. Having a larger roaster will give me leverage to buy more women-produced coffee. I have three different women-produced coffees, but as I grow, I will source more.

Thank you, Shirin, for your time and input.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

Your Career in Commodities

In their excellent and must-read book, The World for Sale, Javier Blas and Jack Farchy have pulled together what the FT calls ‘rollicking yarns’ from the last fifty years of commodity trading. The authors have written the book like a spy thriller. James Bond (in the form of Vitol’s Ian Taylor) braves missile attacks to provide oil to fuel the Arab Spring. The evil genius Blofeld (in the form of Marc Rich) manipulates markets, breaks sanctions and trades with the enemy.

Ian Taylor and Marc Rich have sadly passed away, which makes me wonder to what extent the book reflects the current reality of commodity trading. When the world of trading is trying to increase diversity, what impact will the book have on a young person, particularly a young woman, thinking of a career in the business? Would it be like a young person joining the CIA or MI6 searching for heroic derring-do, only to discover that modern-day spying is more about computer-based data management?

The question, therefore, is: ‘If you read The World for Sale, would you be disappointed if you joined the world of commodities?’ My answer is: ‘It won’t be what you expect, but you won’t be disappointed.’

Commodity trading has always been about data – what we used to call ‘statistics’ or ‘supply and demand analysis’ – which commodity professionals use to predict future price behaviour. The weather is probably the most critical variable in agricultural commodities, but there are many others, politics and government intervention being high on the list.

Making sense of all this data –  bringing all the various elements together to form a compelling picture – is like doing a jigsaw puzzle on the deck of a yacht in a Force 8 gale. There will always be missing pieces, and you will have to make difficult decisions without full information.

You will spend a lot of time on that yacht if you join a financial institution as a ‘paper’ trader. Your work will be almost 100 per cent analysis, but you will quickly get used to being buffeted around by the gales that regularly sweep through the markets. Although I prefer physical commodity trading, you will have a challenging and rewarding career as a paper trader. You will also be adding value in terms of market liquidity and price discovery.

Physical commodity merchandising is about sustainable and efficient supply chain management. You can define it as ‘transforming commodities in space (geography), time (storage) and form (processing)’.

As you move your particular commodity along the supply chain, you will discover market inefficiencies and mispricing. These could, for example, make your corn worth more as ethanol than animal feed. You could find that it is cheaper to supply your Chinese wheat buyers from the US than Australia.

Most market inefficiencies occur when poor crops or government interference disrupt supply chains. The Trump trade wars with China meant that Brazilian soy suddenly increased in value compared to US soy. Russian export taxes on grain suddenly made other origins more competitive.

You may do all your analysis and discover that the market is not mispricing the various differentials but is mispricing the entire supply and demand for a commodity. When that happens, the flat (outright) price will move. This occurred during the super cycle of the 2000s when the world underestimated Chinese demand (for everything) while overestimating the world’s ability to supply it.

As you merchandise your physical commodity, you might, if you are lucky, earn a tiny margin at each stage of the supply chain. However, you will be more likely to make your living as a commodity trader by taking advantage of small market inefficiencies – mispricing – all along the supply chain. By doing so, you will not only make a profit; you will also make the market more efficient, ensuring that it sends the correct price signals to market participants. This is especially true for the flat price. Futures markets reflect the future: prices move in advance of a shortage or surplus, solving the problem before it happens.

As well as making your supply chain efficient, you will also have to make it economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. Your customers will demand nothing less, even if, unfortunately, they won’t pay you extra for it. Sustainability is now a ‘given’. In achieving this, you will find yourself working alongside – rather than in conflict with – NGOs, certification agencies and other not-for-profit foundations.

As I discovered when I wrote my book about coffee, you may also find that you are using your supply chain in reverse, helping NGOs to implement and effect change at the origin.

As well as managing the traceability of your supply chain, you will also have to manage the risks in it. You can hedge some of your price risks on the derivative markets, but most differentials are impossible to hedge. The skills you learn will enable you to trade those differentials successfully.

You will also have to manage counterparty risk – a client defaulting on you – and country risk – a government changing the rules on you. You may also have to deal with fraud, drug traffickers and other possible criminal activity.

A senior official from Olam recently told me that the health and safety of employees is the number one risk that his company faces – and that cybersecurity is number two.  You will have to deal with both.

You won’t be able to merchandise commodities if you don’t have suppliers and customers. The people you will deal with will probably be from different countries; you will have to become accustomed to dealing with people from other races, cultures and creeds. Many of these people will become your friends.

Meeting and interacting with clients was always the most enriching part of my life as a commodity trader. One week I could be wandering in the cane fields in Brazil, Thailand or India. The next, I could be walking the streets of Manhattan visiting hedge fund managers.

You will also have to work in a team. The movies depict James Bond as a lone wolf who saves the world single-handedly, but he would not work alone in real life. The best teams are diversified, with people of different skillsets, of different genders, and from other races and backgrounds. Commodity trading is a global business, and you will soon lose any prejudices that you may still be carrying around with you.

Finally, if you want an idea of what to expect from a career in commodity trading, you couldn’t do better than to watch this video interview of Dave Berhends, one of the world’s top coffee traders.

In their review of the World for Sale, The Times writes that commodity traders are the true Masters of the Universe. Fortunately, that is not true, but our business is still a great one to be involved in – especially if you are a woman.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

A woman in coffee

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we post a blog that Shirin Moayyad, the founder of Sweet Bean Coffee, wrote in 2019 when she was first setting up her business. Next week, I will talk more with her about women in coffee. The following week, I will look at what we can all do to encourage more women into the world of commodity trading. Here is Shirin’s story:

I have now worked for nearly 30 years in coffee. I am at long last the founder and owner of my own coffee business. I have been in charge of a coffee farm in the remote Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where I also managed a roasting and exporting company. I travelled the world buying coffees for Peet’s. I guided National Geographic’s film crew through the coffee fields of Ethiopia and Colombia. I’ve had a long and varied coffee career, taking advantage of every opportunity to expand my knowledge, further my skills and experience as much as possible. And yet, it still comes as a surprise when I face gender discrimination.

Last week my partner and I dismantled a 33-year-old kitchen we’d purchased online to refurbish for my new roastery’s cupping lab. Armed with crowbars, hatchet, saws and a mountain of tools, we set to. Mid-morning, the homeowner invited us in for a coffee break and began asking about our plans: why we needed this kitchen, what we planned to do with it etc. Eyes widening with interest, he asked a whole series of questions. Where they concerned construction and refurbishment, my partner answered. Where it had to do with coffee, Didier directed the gentleman to me, saying, “Shirin is the coffee in this equation; she’s the one to answer that.” Kindly though he was, the gentleman only looked at me briefly, then immediately turned back to Didier, as if in subconscious denial that I, a woman, could be the business owner, the authority, or the one who knew the answers on coffee.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in awe of my partner’s abilities. I think it’s nothing short of miraculous, all the things he is capable of doing. I don’t know how to sand and spackle a wall. I don’t know how to wield a crowbar or saw through a granite counter. My mother did. But I don’t. She grew up in privation in WWII, Germany. Where you had to know how to do everything. My dad was the poet, the dreamer, the aesthetic; my mum was the doer, the powerhouse who made it all happen. She got shit done. She is, I realise, the person who most influenced who I am today.

Still, coming back to kitchen dismantling day. I found myself astounded by the gentleman’s assumption that it had to be Didier who knew coffee; he was the authority simply because he is a man. Maybe once upon a time in my career, this wouldn’t have struck me so much. But now, some 30 years on, it comes down as being just ludicrous.

It was 20 years ago in Singapore when I first found myself frustrated by the blatant discrimination of these assumptions. I was head of coffee, roaster and buyer for a 28-shop chain when I hired a mate of mine from Australia to come roast. He was a lovely bloke; a tall, amiable guy, very competent and a big help to me. But he was my employee, my hire, my direct report. And I lived the same frustration there, of facing implicit assumptions that he was boss, and I was just some little sidekick, an assistant perhaps. Inevitably, his authority was sought, his opinions solicited, the assumption made that he was The Man. It wasn’t his fault, mind, it just was that way. And I was young enough not to be too irritated. But now, some 30 years on….

There was that origin trip once when we were a group of coffee professionals on a bus, headed out to a farm visit. A chap sat next to me and proceeded to soliloquise on his extensive coffee experience, all the marvellous things he’d achieved at origin. I wasn’t sure when he found time to breathe, he was so enthralled with recounting his own achievements. I forgot what topic it was that prompted me to interject mildly how yes, I had also found XYZ issue on the 98-acre coffee farm that I managed in the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea. There was a moment of silence when my words broke through the waterfall of his monologue, and his face went blank. Dumbstruck. Silent. I watched the virtual cogwheels turning as he struggled to compute the information he had just heard. In the event, it was clearly too much for him to compute since, after that brief respite, he went right back to blathering on about his record of achievements. Sigh. It wasn’t yet 30 years then, but it was starting to irritate me.

My mum isn’t the only one to have inspired me over the years. There are others: women in coffee the world over who have been there in one form or another as I learned this path.

Erna Knutsen was one such wonder. I was travelling to California on a trade mission to represent Papua New Guinea – because, by then, I was managing a coffee roasting company there that had achieved considerable export success. My colleagues at home told me to contact Erna as she was the US importer of our finest estate coffee and would look after me. And indeed, she did. Erna invited me to her cupping table whilst evaluating a quality claim on a pricey auction lot Kenyan. Erna was the woman who coined the phrase speciality coffee, the grande dame of our industry who broke the glass ceiling and brazened her way to a place at the cupping table. She was awesome. And here, without knowing anything about me, she allowed me to cup alongside her. I trembled at the honour.

Later that afternoon, I experienced the true flamboyance of this trailblazing woman. She’d booked us a table at San Francisco’s Boulevard Restaurant…a place so fancy to my Papua New Guinean bush eyes, I couldn’t help but be impressed. And there she was, sporting a leopard skin pantsuit, through her cat-eye spectacles calling the handsome young server “darling” and drinking some mighty strong cocktails over lunch. Her self-confidence allowed her a flamboyance I could only dream of.

Today’s earthly embodiment of the virtue of grace though would have to be the inimitable Sunalini Menon, an extraordinary woman I consider to be both a mentor and one of the world’s greatest coffee cuppers. I first witnessed her quiet self-assurance and profound knowledge of coffee at work in Singapore when I moved there from Papua New Guinea. Two gentlemen were trying to sell me coffee from Yunnan, China, which was coming on as an origin. “As good as a Costa Rican hard bean,” they blustered loudly. Sunalini happened to be cupping with and coaching me that afternoon, but they clearly didn’t know her and assumed she was just another woman who could be hoodwinked and bullied.

     (Shirin and Sunalini)

As we started to cup their samples, Sunalini gently probed them with questions on the varieties they had planted. Was it a first or second-generation cross as the Catimor cup was clearly coming through? Perhaps the parenting might have been from XYZ stock as that taste was in the finish, didn’t they think? And where had the progenitor plant material come from as it tasted rather more along the lines of IMN than XYZ, didn’t they think?

With every softly spoken question, her deference combined with her indisputable empirical knowledge of what she was cupping put the gentlemen further on the back foot. I watched their posture literally move from forward-leaning, imposing, nearly bullying to quiet, defensive, and ultimately defeated. The lids came down over their eyes, their body language shut down, they were silenced. It was a prize-winning performance, the likes of which I have not since seen. Never once did Sunalini raise her voice or humiliate. Instead, with soft-spoken words underpinned by the undisputed certainty of her palate and her knowledge, she whipped them. Always immaculately clad in the bright and decorative costumes of her native India, Sunalini’s personal and professional elegance is an inspiring beacon to other women in coffee.

Let me end by drawing a parallel that might help the reader hear my point of view. I have a dear friend, Phyllis, an African American coffee professional. Some years ago, I reflected on the fact that while I could sympathise with her fight and certainly try to empathise with the discrimination an African American experiences, still I could never fully feel it. Why? Quite simply, because I’ve never lived it myself, I haven’t walked in those shoes. It hasn’t been my experience in life, and as much as I sympathise, I cannot live that experience the way Phyllis has.

By the same token, although I’m certain that while my many male colleagues and friends in coffee all sympathise, they cannot know in full what I feel because they’ve never lived it. They’ve never experienced this through this lens. Through the lens whereby, after some 30 years in the industry, a man would still turn his back on a woman and direct his questions at a fellow man with arguably nil experience in coffee.

If I look at the cumulative lessons I’ve learned from the women I admire, what it boils down to is this:

  1. Know and love your subject matter because nobody can question that kind of integrity, and you will live with its certitude.
  2. Believe in yourself and don’t listen to the noise of others. You know your worth; the monkey chatter of others should wash over you and not stick.
  3. Don’t be afraid to have your style. From Erna to Sunalini and every other icon in the world of women in coffee, with the knowledge they have, style is an adornment, a cloak that embellishes their individuality and worth.

Note: these reflections are simply that and no more. And I dedicate them equally to the man I love, as to all my many coffee sisters. And most particularly to my mum, the woman who could do everything.

I also want to thank all my male colleagues for the huge support they give to women in coffee. The world is indeed changing, and there are several men out there – you know who you are – who I look up to every bit as much as I do to the likes of Erna or Sunalini.

Corruption in Commodity Trading

I haven’t yet received my pre-ordered copy of The World for Sale by Javier Blass and Jack Farchy, but it has already spurred some headlines about corruption in the world of commodity trading. The story that attracted the most attention concerns a former Glencore mining executive who admitted to the book’s authors that in 2003 he flew around the world with bags of cash to be paid in bribes to government officials.

The authors rightly point out that, although unethical and immoral, it was both legal and even tax-deductible in 2003 for Swiss companies like Glencore to pay ‘commissions’. The Swiss government has thankfully rectified that sad state of affairs, and Glencore has banned using local agents, the intermediaries they used to facilitate corruption.

Glencore started life as Marc Rich & Co, led by a brilliant but flawed trader who specialised in dealing in countries where most people feared to tread. Daniel Ammann has written a (truly) excellent biography of Marc Rich – The King of Oil – in which he tackles the issue of corruption. He writes

“Most commodities come from countries that are not beacons of democracy and human rights. The “resource curse” and “the paradox of plenty” are the terms economists and political scientists use to describe the fact that countries that are rich in oil, gas or metals are usually plagued by poverty, corruption, and misgovernment. If commodity traders want to be successful, they are forced—much like journalists or intelligence agents who will take their information from any source—to sit down with people that they would rather not have as friends, and they apparently have to resort to practices that are either frowned upon or downright illegal in other parts of the world.”

Mr Ammann is right: corruption has more to do with governments than commodity trading. The onus is on governments to cure the disease.

Way back in 1977, the US instituted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). It made it unlawful for a U.S. person or company to offer, pay, or promise to pay money or anything of value to any foreign official for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business.

More recently, China, previously one of the world’s most corrupt countries, has resorted to drastic action, instituting capital punishment for corrupt officials.  Other countries are taking less drastic measures, but they are moving, albeit too slowly, in the right direction.

Corruption in commodities typically thrives when governments get involved in, for example, awarding mineral rights, production or trade quotas or by setting prices.

It was omnipresent in the agricultural markets when I began my career in commodities. At that time, only the government had the right to import or export certain commodities in many countries. Buying and selling tenders were often rigged – and you were never sure how much money was being siphoned off or added on before it reached the farmers or the consumers.

Over the past 40 years, governments have exited the agricultural commodity trade; the business has been privatised. When business is in private hands, producers or buyers have little interested in receiving bribes; it is the price and the terms of the deal that interest them.

But what should you do if a government official asks for a bribe? In my book, The Sugar Casino, I told the true story of the first time someone asked me for one:

“After spending two years as a futures trader in Minneapolis, my company transferred me back to London with a brief to develop new markets in the Middle East and Africa. The company’s agent in one country (I won’t say which one) contacted me to say that they had surplus sugar that year and the government would like to export a couple of cargoes to earn much needed foreign exchange. The minister who was handling the sale was coming to London the following week. Could I meet him?

 “Despite being only 25 years old, I met the minister and took him to an expensive restaurant. We had an excellent meal, discussed the sugar market and tried to estimate the price for the particular grade of sugar the country was exporting. As we were leaving, he surprised me by suggesting that we dine again the following evening. I agreed even though I was unsure what we had left to talk about.

 “The next evening, the minister slipped me a shopping list of electronic items that he would like to take back with him from London. There were only four items on the list: a television, a radio, a stereo system and (bizarrely) an electric iron. He asked if I could help him obtain these items. I wasn’t quite sure if he asked me to go with him to the shops to choose the items or ask me to buy the items and give them to him for free. And if it was the latter, I was surprised at how little it took to bribe a minister.

 “The next day, I told my boss what had happened. I thought it was a bit of a joke. Still, my boss took it seriously, advising me to go back to the minister to politely explain that company policy meant that we couldn’t help with his request but that we would still like to buy his sugar and be very competitive on the price. I did as instructed and was not surprised to hear a week later that one of our competitors had bought the two cargos of sugar. I calculated they had probably made a profit of $240,000 on the deal. I compared that to the couple of hundred dollars it would have cost to buy the items on the minister’s shopping list.

 “I mentioned this to my boss, who told me angrily that I should never think about paying a bribe to anyone, no matter how much money was at stake. He called it “selling your soul to the devil” and argued that even if a television may not cost much, it was “the thin edge of the wedge. And from a business point of view”, he added, “It makes no sense.

 “First, it will give your client a hold over you. Second, if everyone does the same thing, you will end up competing against each other in the number of bribes that you pay.” He called it “competitive corruption” and said that paying a bribe would be ineffective if your competitor paid more.

In 2016, I interviewed the legendary sugar trader Robert Kuok for The Sugar Casino. He told me:

“One piece of advice: never hug the high and mighty; they electrocute you. Keep them at arm’s length. And always adhere to moral practices, and nothing can stop you. If someone asks you for a bribe, you should say that neither you nor your company could do that. But stay very polite. Don’t stand on your high horse and preach morality at that moment. Just turn them down nicely. If you get a chance later at a meal or something, you can pontificate a little, but not then – they are not in the mood to be listening to moral truth.

Sound advice, indeed.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

A Conversation with Aitana Conca

I recently caught up with Aitana Conca, previously Global Head of Middle Desk and Contract Management for Cargill’s Ocean Transportation Division in Geneva, and now Director -EMEA for Chinsay.

Good morning, Aitana. Could you please tell me a little about yourself?

I live in Switzerland, but I am originally from Spain, where I grew up and studied.

I started my commodities career when I joined Cargill Geneva in 2005 in the finance team of their Ocean Transportation division. I already had a deep understanding of finance. Still, I knew nothing about trading or shipping and learned everything from the bottom up, which has given me a solid knowledge of the industry’s complexities.

I felt that my career had hit a ‘pivot point’ and wanted to explore new avenues and offer the digital skills that were increasingly in demand. I needed to step out of my comfort zone and left Cargill to study for a Global Executive Master in Digital Business at Madrid’s ISDI business school.

I was excited to join Chinsay as I knew them from my time at Cargill – I was one of their first customers.

As a woman, did you find yourself in a ‘man’s world’ – and how did you deal with that?

Being a woman has never been an obstacle in my career, even in the male-dominated trading and shipping world. Having said that, I often felt the need for having to craft more solid arguments than my male peers.

Research has shown that diversified teams outperform non-diversified teams. Women bring a different perspective than men, and we definitely add value and insight. Many companies know this, and they embrace gender diversity. I’ve been lucky to work with companies that welcome women for the value that they bring.

Cargill is known for its training programmes. What was your experience with this, and have you had a chance to make use of it?

Cargill has excellent programmes for employee development. They don’t only teach you technical or professional skills. They teach you to be a better leader and how to navigate as a woman.

I am lucky that at Chinsay, I can continue to empower women and develop them into leadership roles. I find that very exciting.

Chinsay, like Cargill, is becoming more diverse and is interested in making women’s voices in the industry heard, and the company has a real passion for bettering client’s businesses. These are some of the factors that helped me decide to join their executive team.

What were the other drivers in your decision to join Chinsay?

Chinsay allows me to help people with innovation and digital transformation. It is a passion of mine. I have the opportunity to help drive real change and consider the future of technology and the market.

On the customer side, I can empathise with our clients and put myself in their shoes. I have been in their position; this helps me gain insights and establish a foundation of understanding. I can support our clients on their digital transformation journey.

From Chinsay’s side, I can help the company become an even more customer-centric company. That’s my objective!

Briefly, what does Chinsay do?

We enable clients to digitalise workflows in freight and commodity sectors. We focus on efficiency, compliance, controls and transparency. That is our core business, but we go beyond that. We are becoming increasingly about data: collecting, analysing and integrating our clients’ information into their systems.

We bring business clarity and efficiency to what has traditionally been a siloed, disconnected industry, and we reduce cost and risk.

Chinsay has several big names clients. Why do they need you?

We are fortunate to have a great relationship with clients, and our service and solution benefit greatly from input and advice. A good example is Cargill. They built the Covantis Blockchain platform in partnership with other grain-trading companies, and we work on the portion of the workflow that precedes the post-trade part.

We definitely believe in the principle of working together and integrating with best-of-breed technology; Covantis is a great example of the benefits of having one seamless flow of operations and data.

You joined Chinsay in December 2020. How are things going so far?

I am still learning, finding out how the company works and functions. I am looking at areas where the company can improve internally, particularly in shaping our product offering from the customer’s perspective.

My objective is to build a partnership with our customers. I look at it as ‘push versus pull’. Rather than ‘push’ our services to our customers, we want our customers to ‘pull’ Chinsay’s service into their systems.

First, you have to understand your customer’s needs and then work to fill those needs; don’t try to push your ready-made product or service onto the customer.

Is there anything you want to add?

I have three essential themes in my life:

The first is the empowerment of women: helping women thrive in male-dominated environments. I am a champion for gender diversity, whether at the local school or in the workplace.

The second is the importance of trust in both professional and private relationships. That could be between yourself and your children, or your company and clients. Without trust, you have nothing.

The third is to constantly learn and do better in both my personal and professional life. I see data and digital transformation as the agent for change for much of life, both now and in the future. It is the future, and I want to be an agent for that change.

Last question: how are you coping with lockdown?

On the professional side, we have been fortunate during lockdowns because our clients see us as a core part of remote working.

On the personal side, I miss the hugs!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This is part of our series promoting women in agricultural commodities. Please get in touch if you have a story to tell on this theme.

The history of wheat

History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive. It knows the names of the king’s bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. This is the way of human folly.  –           Jean-Henri Fabre (1823 –1915) French naturalist and author

 Wheat, barley and rye can trace their origin back to Triticeae, a grass that grew wild in the Fertile Crescent. Wild einkorn and emmer are wheat’s earliest ancestors; they had seed heads that quickly broke apart in the wind, scattering the seeds and permitting self-sowing. Modern-day wheat is the opposite: the grains now stay on the stalks no matter how strong the wind.

Modern-day wheat did not benefit as much as corn from the Fritz Haber process of combining nitrogen with hydrogen to make ammonia. Until the middle of the 20th century, applying nitrogen as fertiliser on wheat made it grow taller and thicker, but it fell over in the wind and rotted. Wheat needed to be genetically improved to take advantage of the technological progress in fertilisers.

One of the first leaps forward occurred in 1935 when a Japanese scientist named Gonjiro Inazuka crossed a semi-dwarf Japanese wheat species with two American varieties to produce an improved semi-dwarf variety Norin 10. Unlike previous types, which grew to 150 cm, Norin 10 only reached 60–110 cm.

In the late 1940s, Orville Vogel at Washington State University took another step forward when he imported Norin 10 into the US and crossed it with other varieties to yield high-yielding, semi-dwarf winter wheat.

However, the revolution in wheat—and it was a revolution—occurred in 1952. Norman Borlaug took some of these new Norin hybrid seeds to Mexico and grew thousands of unique varieties. He couldn’t sequence the wheat’s DNA to figure out which genes caused these traits because that technology didn’t exist then, but he carefully noted each variety’s characteristics. His work paid off, producing new kinds of dwarf wheat that were rust-resistant and didn’t blow over (lodge) in high winds.

By the 1960s, Borlaug was travelling the world to spread the news. His first stop was Pakistan where wheat yields were around 360kg an acre. Mexican farmers were by then getting more than three times that. His major success, however, was in India.

When India became independent in 1947, the country produced only 6.5 million tonnes of wheat each year, and yields were around 663 kg per hectare. It was not enough to feed the Indian population, and the country largely depended on food-aid imports from the US.

In 1963, India was on the brink of famine. The government invited Borlaug to India to test his new varieties. His yields were four or five times better, and India’s farmers quickly took up the new breeds. By 1974, India’s wheat production had tripled, and the country was self-sufficient in food. India has never faced a famine since.

In 1970 Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for enabling what came to be called the ‘Green Revolution’. He earned it.

World wheat production has more than tripled in the last sixty years, from 234 million mt in 1960 to 772 million mt in 2020. At the same time, wheat acreage has only risen 10 per cent, from 202 million hectares to 222 million hectares. Without Norman Borlaug, the world population would not have increased over that same sixty-year period from 3.0 to 7.7 billion. And what’s more, crop failures and famines would still be regular occurrences.

But it is not just the varieties of wheat that have evolved over the centuries; so too has the way humanity has sown, harvested and ground it into flour.

Ancient Egyptians sowed wheat by casting seeds into the mud after the retreat of annual floodwaters along the Nile. They then drove their cattle over the area to trample the seeds into the ground. Hand scattering of seed is still used today in many parts of the world.

Early farmers harvested their wheat with sharpened stones fitted into a wood or bone handle, but the introduction of iron and steel led to the sickle, a tool that is still widely used. Sickles are light enough to be used by women and children and allow wheat to be cut at any height so that they can leave the straw standing or cut it separately.

The sickle was so crucial in human development that the USSR put it with the hammer on its flag. The hammer represented industry, the sickle, agriculture.

The scythe was an improvement over the sickle with a longer blade at right angles to a long wooden handle. You can harvest wheat faster with a scythe than with a sickle, and you can stand upright while you do it. However, a scythe cuts the straw close to the ground, leaving it attached to the wheat head. A scythe is heavier than the sickle. But the scythe has again entered into our collective psyches with death portrayed as the Grim Reaper harvesting souls.

The first mechanical reaper appeared in 1831: a two-wheeled, horse-drawn contraption pushed a series of moving, scissor-like blades against the grain to clip it close to the ground. A rotating paddlewheel swept the stalks against the cutting bales, so they fell on a platform as the machine moved forward.

Once farmers had harvested the wheat, they spread it on a plot of hard ground or threshing floor. They then drove cattle or horses over the grain so that their hooves separated the wheat from the chaff. Winnowing, or tossing the mixture into the air, then allowed the wind to blow away the lighter chaff and the heavier wheat to drop back. The threshing machine later used fans to separate the chaff from the grain, mechanically doing the process.

As its name suggests, the modern combine harvester performs all these basic jobs in one operation. Hiram Moore developed the first version in 1834 and, by 1860, combine harvesters had cutting widths of several meters. In 1885, Hugh Victor McKay, from Australia, developed the first commercial combine harvester, called the Sunshine Harvester. It reduced the number of working hours needed to harvest one acre of wheat from 46 hours to 30 minutes. Today a modern combine can harvest 1,000 bushels per hour. That’s more than 27 metric tonnes.

Once harvested, wheat needs to be milled into flour, separating the outer bran and germ from the inner, more digestible, endosperm. Although wheat has been grown for thousands of years, humans’ teeth from excavated villages dating back to 6,700 BC show no signs of wear, indicating that those early people already milled wheat. Archaeologists have found grinding stones at sites of ancient settlements in almost all parts of the world.

Over the centuries, mills have been powered by men, horses, oxen, water, or wind, all geared to turn one stone against another. The Romans were the first to use waterpower for milling flour, in about 100 BC, and it remained a significant source of mill power. In 1870, most of the approximately 22,000 flour mills in the US were still water driven.

© Commodity Conversations ®

For more about wheat please click here

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

To continue reading, please click on this link for the third part of this blog.