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Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World

Author(s):Nelson, Scott Reynolds
Reviewer(s):Sharp, Paul

Published by EH.Net (August 2022).

Scott Reynolds Nelson. Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. New York: Basic Books, 2022. 368 pp. $32 (hardback), ISBN 978-1541646469.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul Sharp, University of Southern Denmark, CAGE, CEPR


The title of this book is somewhat misleading. When I received it for review, I expected another US-centric account of how America made the world what it is today. I was therefore somewhat surprised to begin reading, and found that a large part concerns Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. In fact, reading this book while at the same time witnessing the horrors coming out of Ukraine made an impression, as I will come back to at the end of this review. The author, Scott Reynolds Nelson, is the UGA Athletics Association Professor of the Humanities at the University of Georgia. He has won both academic and literary awards for his writing. It is therefore no surprise that this book is an excellent read. Nelson has the historian’s enviable skill (which many of us from the more economics side of economic history could surely learn from) of making serious analysis come to life through vivid descriptions of people and places. You will most likely come out of reading this book far more knowledgeable than when you started, whether or not you believe the central hypothesis.

Nelson presents a bold theory of what made the modern world. Where Jared Diamond saw “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Nelson sees the perhaps somewhat less sexy trinity of mold, futures contracts, and dynamite. The potato blight, phytophthora infestans, of the 1840s forced open European markets for grain. The American Civil War led to financial innovations in how grain was traded; and dynamite, invented in Germany in 1867, transformed geography as new deep-water ports were created, and canals and railroads connected continents. In other words, policy, finance, and technology created the globalized world. This is not really news to the economic historian, but Nelson puts it within a framework inspired by the Russian Marxist, activist, and grain trader, Alexander Lvovich Parvus (born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand or Helphand). He postulated the role that “invisible lines,” the “Black Paths” of grain trading routes, have played for the making and breaking of empires, which he argued exist to control and extract rents from them. Rosa Luxembourg was to take his “invisible lines” to create a new way of understanding trade which we now call world systems theory. But Parvus’ influence went far beyond theory. He was able to convince Lenin of the power of these lines and that revolution in Russia was possible.

The introduction provides a great summary of Nelson’s hypothesis. His 2012 book A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (Knopf) explained that financial panics had much to do with drastic changes in commodity prices. Accordingly, the story here starts in Odesa, Ukraine, which he visited in 2011 to research international financial crises. Nelson sees connections between booms and busts in the wheat market for everything from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring. He notes parallels between different settings based on connections to wheat. For example, Ukraine has some of the richest soil in the world, and it was captured by Russia in 1768 under Catherine II. At the same time, he notes, similar expansionism was going on in the Americas. Then, the French Revolution (over the price of bread, of course, as Nelson notes), and the French and Napoleonic Wars led to Odesa becoming a grain-exporting boomtown. European landlords in turn faced Ricardo’s paradox, as rents dropped as food became cheap. The initial response was protectionist barriers to trade, but then a water mold caused the potato harvest to fail, and European trade opened following 1846.

This, Nelson explains, led to century-long contest between Russia and America to feed Europe’s working class. In the 1860s both empires ended serfdom and slavery respectively. America then gained the upper hand, when the Union Army during the Civil War created futures contracts that allowed grain to be bought and sold without the costly and time intensive process of pricing based on samples. This, combined with the transatlantic telegraph, steam shipping, and the new opportunities brought by dynamite, led to what Kevin H. O’Rourke has termed the “Grain Invasion.” European prices fell, and the ships which brought grain returned with migrants to the New World. As European workers in cities became better off, Odesa, and other grain exporting regions, faced ruin, and the combination of the agrarian crisis and the bursting of estate bubbles ushered in what was known as the Great Depression until the 1930s. The powerful agricultural Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires declined. Russia, for its part, responded in 1884 with state-supported railroads and a plan to plant grain in Siberia and Central Asia. This brought in capital from largely French investors, but Russia’s expansionary plans were checked when it lost in war to the Japanese Empire in 1905. Then, in 1914 Russia’s anxiety that Turkey might halt Russian grain shipments on the Black Seas helped start World War I: “a war over nothing less than foreign bread.” Thus, as Parvus, who grew up in Odesa during the 1873 crisis and coined the term “Agrarian Crisis” in 1895, claimed, the paths of grain made and destroyed empires.

Chapter 1 covers an impressive span of time, 10,000-800 BC and explains the origin of the “black paths” that so fascinated Parvus. Ancient oxen trails connected the Ukrainian plains with the Black Sea ports. Geographers and historians have claimed that these paths, and the trading cities known as emporia (themselves the source of the word “empire”) were created by empires, which in turn were defined by their control of trade lines. Folklore, backed up by new archaeological evidence suggests a far more ancient origin. The first wheat “farmers” might have been travelers or traders, who after decades of migration remained at way stations which formed the first settled communities. Empires then emerged based on establishing protection rackets along the pathways, and in a few generations imposed formal imperial rule. Thus, empires imposed a tax on the black paths, but so too did disease, and the rise and fall of both determined the volume of trade. Nelson explains that historically bread was extremely expensive, involving three stages: 1) planting and harvesting; 2) storing and shipping to the bread eaters, in the emporium; and 3) producing flour, mixing with yeast and water, and baking, which took place in the cities. For at least fifty centuries considerable human labor was devoted to the second stage, and empires emerged to engross and centralize it.

Chapter 2 covers 800 BC-AD 1758. Nelson explains how Byzantium enforced a monopoly control of the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles. Constantinople rose and fell as the black paths expanded and contracted, but grain emporia were nodes for infection, and the Plague of Justinian in 541 ended the ancient world. With depopulation, important knowledge about the storage of grain was lost, and its rediscovery centuries later was to play an important part for making long distance trade possible. Constantinople became increasingly dependent on Slavic peoples, and as the grain flowed in, Byzantian culture and the Orthodox religion flowed back. In medieval western Europe, which was often cut off from trade with the East after 542, serfdom arose to compensate for the loss of trade, and control of mill and bakery meant control of people. Nelson is brilliant at finding anecdotes to illustrate the centrality of grain for understanding the world. Thus, the word lord comes from an old word meaning loaf-ward, and the word lady from loaf-kneader, although one wonders if similar etymologies exist for the same words in different languages.

The years 541-1100 were the age of robber barons, for example the Hanseatic League. Absolutist states emerged to break their monopoly, and in 1453 the Byzantine Empire, increasingly starved of grain, collapsed and the Turks took over. A long struggle then emerged with Russia, which wanted to take Constantinople to monopolize the Bosporus themselves. Thus “… at its deepest level an empire may be a monopolizer of food along ancient grain pathways that it never fully understands. Empires survive only as long as they control the sources of food needed to feed soldiers and citizens; they fund themselves by taxing those who sell it.” This is further explored in Chapter 3, covering 1760-1844, where it is explained how Catherine II, inspired by the physiocrats, believed that grain exports properly managed could be the source of an empire’s wealth. To this end she transformed serfdom into something more akin to New World slavery, and enacted extensive military and fiscal reforms. She then set about seizing land where wheat could grow, although she never managed to capture Constantinople. But as the Ottoman Empire shrank, in part due to a less sophisticated grain-tax system, European princes tore grain-producing Poland to pieces to appease Catherine. Moreover, as with US expansion, thousands of native peoples were persuaded to ally with Russia in order to dispossess others. Having taken Ukraine, Catherine founded Odessa (renamed in Ukrainian as Odesa) as a free port, and invited in foreigners to farm land as she aimed to feed Europe and thus make Russia rich. Meanwhile the United States, before the Civil War, offered no real competition. The American port cities were not “visionary physiocratic cities” but “simple adjuncts to plantation slave regimes” where landowners blocked foreign imports. However, the French rediscovered Roman techniques of grain storage, allowing for silos and American “elevators”, thus making long-distance trade increasingly feasible. Trade remained protected, however, and to an extreme degree following the Napoleonic Wars.

Chapter 4 provides the first of Nelson’s trinity of explanations. Barriers to trade crumbled with the failure of the potato crop in the 1840s. As trade expanded, bread replaced potatoes and living standards surged, although health often suffered as Europeans preferred highly processed white bread. Thus emerged what Parvus described as the European consumption-accumulation city. Labor and capital accumulated where food was cheapest and the cities with the deepest docks thrived. Prosperity allowed workers to save, freeing up capital for industrialization. Nelson explains, “European industrialization and urbanization had little in the way of European roots. It was fueled by foreign food.” Chapter 5 demonstrates how the conflict between the Russian and Ottoman Empires came to a head with the Crimean War 1853-56 which saw Russia fail to capture Constantinople, in part because France and Britain feared a Russian monopoly on the Black Sea. This was a humiliating defeat, but also left the Ottoman Empire in heavy debt to Britain and France. Serfdom was abolished in Russia in order to expand grain production, leaving former serfs heavily indebted, but with land, and new political structures, the mir and the zemstvo, were implemented to govern these areas.

A different story played out in the United States, where slavery was abolished around the same time, but land was not redistributed, part of the origins of inequality in the US today. At the same time, the US expanded grain production into the interior using Black Sea varieties of wheat, and the Republican Party campaigned against slavery based on a belief in physiocratic expansion, and a desire for incentives to put family laborers onto wheat farms. Migrants purchased land along new railroads whose monopoly power they came to hate. Then in Chapter 6 Nelson gives the second part of his explanation. The Civil War created a necessity for breaking the power of merchants to supply food for the army, and this was done with a novel financial innovation. Bills of exchange were divided into hundreds of enforceable contracts, which would be called futures contracts, obviating the necessity for buying and selling based on a sample. Although in 1863 only the US Army was using this, with the introduction of the Transatlantic telegraph trade became completely reorganized. Ships could take the place of storage facilitates, redirected at port to wherever the grain was needed. America could now compete with Russia.

The final part of Nelson’s trinity is presented in Chapter 7, appropriately entitled “Boom.” Trade costs were again slashed with the invention of dynamite, which allowed railroads to run through mountains, canals, such as the Suez Canal, to link continents, and for the creation of new deep ports. The increased trade came with additional innovations such as grading, specialized insurance, and Hungarian milling techniques. As the price of food plummeted, workers found more time to educate and organize themselves, as Chapter 8 explains. New economic theories, including Marx’s, emerged to calculate the causes and limits of the new agricultural plenty. Much of the remainder of the book explains Parvus’ contribution to socialist theory and his direct influence on the course of events during his life, including the emergence of the Young Turks and the revolutions in Russia. He argued that although cheap grain benefited everyone, the main threat to the world was the alliance between capitalists and empire which would lead to imperialism, and pointless and costly wars. Agricultural empires such as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires suffered, while other empires gorged on cheap grain and became great powers. The US share of the grain trade declined as increasing shares of its production went to feed its own large cities. New conflicts emerged as others sought to capitalize on the demand from elsewhere, as Turkey again became a key battleground. World War I itself was “a World War over bread” with for example the closing of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits a key event. As Russia starved, revolutions eventually toppled the old Tsarist regime, and the Soviet Union, by quickly incorporating grain producing areas in Ukraine for example, took its place.

One is left with the feeling that we should be surprised about the importance of wheat for world history, which the layperson might indeed be. But from the perspective of an economic historian, one cannot really argue that wheat has been underappreciated. My own PhD thesis, from 2009, was entitled “Wheat, Globalization and Economic History,” and my career as a researcher began with reading the great works by Fairlie, Harley, Williamson, O’Rourke, Jacks, Brunt, and of course my own former supervisor, K.G. Persson (some references are given below). Certainly, there are many more I have forgotten to mention. One could argue that Russia’s role in this story is underexplored, with a few notable exceptions such as Goodwin and Grennes (1998), but more and more scholars are working on Russian economic history these days, so this will improve. Other large countries such as China and India take up relatively little space in Nelson’s account, while references to Parvus alone take up half a page in the index. One can of course argue against the somewhat physiocratic idea of the world where everything starts with the soil. In history this might have been truer, but Engel’s Law and technological progress have changed that, present concerns about food supplies notwithstanding. Regarding the first globalization, Nelson explains that economists and contemporaries have emphasized the importance of the elimination of tariffs, the introduction of the gold standard, and steamships. But, he believes, they have missed the ecological and political background: how the potato famine opened trade, dynamite opened ports, and futures markets increased liquidity. This is a powerful and convincing argument, but this is not a quantitative study. The only graph is of imports of wheat and flour into UK, but this only goes back to 1820. Before this, he explains in an appendix, there was a lot of smuggling and the data is underreported, meaning that historians have overstated the role of cotton and understate wheat.

Given my geographical location and research interests I am looking for Scandinavian connections everywhere, and I apologize for that! But it might be mentioned that, although Nelson dedicates the book to his maternal grandmother and explains that his grandparents left Sweden in 1887, the book somewhat neglects Europe outside Russia and Turkey (and indeed the world beyond), despite the obvious point that dynamite was invented in Germany by a Swede. Copenhagen’s role as a major Baltic trading hub is mentioned in passing, but the somewhat famous Danish exception during the backlash against the American grain invasion before the First World War deserves at least a sentence. Sticking to free trade, Denmark imported cheap grain, which helped feed a booming Danish industry in butter, bacon, and eggs, allowing this small country to feed the large industrializing cities of northern England. Danish exports were to play a crucial role in establishing industrialized dairying around the world, including the United States and Russia. Food is after all not only grain, particularly not as countries become richer. On a more trivial note, at one point the Danish ruler of England, King Canute, is described as a “legendary fool,” but as a historical figure he arguably was neither legendary (although the famous story about him might be) nor foolish for trying to demonstrate the limits of his power and in the process getting his feet wet.

Nelson is not afraid of using dramatic language to demonstrate the relevance of his work for the present, for example in chapter 14: “Now, just as ten thousand years ago, producers and consumers are bound together in a common world ecology that viruses, empires, and states have only ridden upon, bits of foam on a vast, invisible deep.” But sometimes he over-eggs the pudding, such as in the conclusion: “Whether to regard empires as symbiotes or parasites depends on one’s perspective. I tend to see empires as parasites, but one could make the argument that imperially sponsored universities… try to prevent starvation… in ways that promote ‘growth’ inside the empire. Physics, biology, chemistry, economics, and history are all, in their way, data-processing systems for empires hoping to keep their subjects – us – alive so that they can rule another day.” I like to believe that knowledge creation has value beyond allowing our present rulers to survive.

In sum, I would certainly recommend reading this book. I learned a great deal, and his thesis is fascinating and provocative. Moreover, it is a highly engaging read. But be prepared to feel somewhat unsettled as well. Nelson chillingly concludes that “modern Russia’s relative weakness as a great power now (in 2021) may still ultimately depend on its separation from Ukraine… Ukraine has always been the greatest prize, as Catherine the Great well knew.” Economists and economic historians are always being asked to provide policy implications of their work these days. Here is one that President Putin seems to have taken to heart.


Brunt, L. (2004). Nature or Nurture? Explaining English Wheat Yields in the Industrial Revolution, c. 1770. Journal of Economic History, 64(1), 193-225.

Fairlie, S. (1969). “The Corn Laws and British Wheat Production, 1829-76.” Economic History Review, 22(1), 88-116.

Goodwin, B. K., & Grennes, T. J. (1998). “Tsarist Russia and the World Wheat Market.” Explorations in Economic History, 35(4), 405-430.

Harley, C. K. (1978). “Western Settlement and the Price of Wheat, 1872–1913.” Journal of Economic History, 38(4), 865-878.

O’Rourke, K. H. (1997). The European Grain Invasion, 1870–1913.” Journal of Economic History, 57(4), 775-801.

O’Rourke, K. H., and Williamson, J. G. (2001). Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Olmstead, A. L., & Rhode, P. W. (2002). “The Red Queen and the Hard Reds: Productivity Growth in American Wheat, 1800–1940.” Journal of Economic History, 62(4), 929-966.

Persson, K. G. (1999). Grain Markets in Europe, 1500–1900: Integration and Deregulation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Paul Sharp is professor of economics at the University of Southern Denmark, where he heads the Historical Economics and Development Group (HEDG). He is the author, with Karl Gunnar Persson, of An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions and Growth, 600 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and, with Markus Lampe, of A Land of Milk and Butter: How Elites Created the Modern Danish Dairy Industry (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative