Oceans of Grain | Scott Reynolds Nelson

Summary of: Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World
By: Scott Reynolds Nelson


Embark on a historical journey as ‘Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World’ by Scott Reynolds Nelson, explores the crucial role of wheat and grain trade in shaping global events, economies, and politics. The book highlights the significance of grain trading routes, grain’s role in warfare and diplomacy, and its impact on the development of empires. Discover the crucial role of the Bosporus Strait in grain transport, the rise and fall of once-mighty agricultural empires, and the influence of new strains of American wheat that ushered in a seismic shift in global grain markets. Get ready to unveil the fascinating dynamics of grain in shaping the world as we know it.

Grain: The Hidden Force of History

Grain has played a significant role in human history, causing conflicts and shaping empires. It acted as a “pinch point” in grain transport for thousands of years, triggering political events like the Arab Spring. Even the English word “lord” has a connection to bread. Grain stores acted as prototypes of banks, and restricted grain imports caused starvation and food riots in Germany’s “Turnip Winter” during World War I. Human civilization has been eating bread for over 14,000 years, and the grain trade played a role in the development of the US interstate transportation system and the dwindling of Old World agricultural empires. The book highlights how successful empires simply straddled trading paths that came first.

Wheat and Empires

The history of wheat cultivation and trade in Ukraine and the Black Sea area is a story of empires, military strategy, and technological advances. From the ancient Greeks to Catherine the Great and Russia’s ambitions to control the bread supply of Europe, wheat exports have shaped political and economic events. Although the flood of American wheat caused a crisis in the 19th century, Ukrainian farmers’ specialized grains eventually made their way to the New World, providing wheat strains that could adapt to different climates. The story of wheat is the story of the rise and fall of empires and the foundations of modern agriculture.

The Role of Cotton Farming in the US Civil War

Cotton farming in the South, fueled by slavery, becomes so prosperous that it triggers the Civil War. Additionally, wheat farming gradually replaced slavery in the north due to its feasibility. The grain merchants, lawyers and railroad owners collaborated in opening Midwest grain trade, causing a surge in European settlers to the region. The Republican Party was a political alignment of these interest groups, and even Abraham Lincoln had worked for the railroad industry.

The Impact of US Wheat on Europe

The surge of wheat from the US Midwest to European cities between 1871 and 1880 had a profound impact on the continent’s economy. The value of all US food exports to Europe rose from $32 billion to $231 billion, with cheap bread becoming available to workers moving to industrial cities. European farmers shifted to meat, dairy, and other enterprises as prices for grain dropped by 40% between 1870 and 1900. However, this disruption caused a significant agrarian crisis that began in 1873, leading to the Great Depression. Governments like Italy and Germany heavily taxed US grain to protect domestic agriculture and boost spending. Despite its consequences, areas around port cities flourished, becoming lasting hubs of meat production. The US transformed European diets and economies, demonstrating the power of the telegraph and the importance of supply chains in an increasingly interconnected world.

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