Melissa: The Ukrainian flag is a blue horizontal band over a gold horizontal band, its colors symbolic of blue skies high above the country's golden fields of wheat. Those golden wheat fields are things to what historian Scott Reynolds Nelson describes as maybe the richest soil in the world in his new and timely book Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World.
Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine has sent the world on a tailspin towards a global food crisis with grain at its center. That's in large part due to Russia's blockade on Ukrainian ports. They've halted an estimated $6 billion worth of grain exports. This has sent both wheat prices and overall global food prices to record highs over the past two months. The situation is growing dire, and the UN has been sounding the alarm, warning that Russia's war could create the largest global food crisis since World War II.
With me now is Scott Reynolds Nelson, Professor of History at the University of Georgia and author of the new book Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. Scott, thanks for being here.
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Hey there. Thanks so much for having me, Melissa.
Melissa: Clearly you began writing this book. It may have even been on my shelf prior to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but you focus on the city of Odessa, which is now part of Ukraine. Talk to us about the historical significance of Odessa and grain.
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Odessa is the city that Catherine the Great built. She has an idea to build a Russian empire out of a relatively small Russian state, and she does this by invading Ukraine. She's the third person to try to do it, and she finally succeeds and she builds Odessa on the Black Sea as a place for grain exports. Her plan is to export grain to the rest of the world as a way to build up the capital that's needed to create a Russian empire, and she does it; she's successful. That's 1768, [chuckles] the third of 11 invasions of Ukraine in the last 250 years.
Melissa: I'm not sure that I would have-- In fact, I am quite sure I wouldn't have understood nearly as well what a global crisis this is on the question of food before reading your book. Talk to us a bit about why Ukraine continues to feed the world.
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Ukraine is in the Goldilocks zone. It's close to deep water, it's got fresh water that's accessible from multiple rivers and streams, and it's a flat plain next to the water. It's got everything you need to grow wheat in two seasons and to ship it very long distance from that deep-water port. It's been a food-producing region for thousands and thousands of years. Supposedly Jason and the Argonauts, some ancient historians, say that the Golden Fleece that they were looking for was actually grain, which they found on the Black Sea.
Melissa: How might we in 50 years, in 100 years look back and see literally written on the bodies of the next generation the effect of this invasion?
Scott Reynolds Nelson: The poorest people in the region from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Straits of Hormuz, so North Africa, the Middle East, places that have been part of the old Russian Empire, the places that have been fed in part by Ukrainian grain, poor people in those regions in North Africa, Nigeria and elsewhere, are going to be hit by the Ukrainian invasion, and are being hit right now. Just a few months after the start of this, food prices have skyrocketed, they've doubled, basically the price of grain, and it's going to be harder and harder to get food.
Food is 30% to 40% of people's household expenditure in places like Nigeria and Morocco and Yemen. When those prices go up, it's not necessarily going to cause famine but it is going to mean that people are going to be losing their apartments. They're going to have to spend too much on food. We could see some deficits in people's diets that are going to have effects. 100 years from now we'll see them in that when we look at the census.
Melissa: From the moment of this invasion forward, and certainly, I think, throughout the 20th century as well, Americans, when we know or think about the ways that commodities affect war and peace and relationship between nations, typically is oil, the no war for oil conversation, but instead you are showing us how grain makes and destroys empires. How important is grain to our contemporary geopolitics?
Scott Reynolds Nelson: I would attest that you can't get industrialization until you get cheap grain. Once cheap grain starts to flow from the Black Sea, by the 1780s, to the rest of Europe, you start to see a real change in the way that cities work in Europe, because for the first time food is cheaper in cities than it is in the countryside. That means people leave the countryside to settle in the cities. You start to see urbanization and industrialization in Europe, in large part because of this food issue.
It's hard for us to see food directly in quite the same way as you can see oil directly in the way that it affects industrialization. It absolutely makes it possible for the grain gobbling cities to just draw all sorts of people in, drives down the price of rural land, drives up the price of urban land, and makes it possible, really, to urbanize Europe.
Melissa: Is that what Putin is doing? Is he performing his Catherine the Great 1768 version of bringing back together the great Soviet experiment? Is he just basically going back to get his breadbasket?
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Sort of, yes, and he's certainly weaponizing grain. The number one grain exporter is Russia, the number five or four is Ukraine. When you blockade Ukraine's ports it means that Ukraine can't get foreign exchange, but it actually drives up the price of Russian grain. What we're seeing is even though we've got all these sanctions against Russia going on, increasingly everything is-- initially oil has to be paid for in rubles. In a week people will have to pay for grain in rubles, and that's the plan from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Melissa: Instead of releasing 180 million barrels of domestic oil, should the US instead be ramping up our grain production, sending more grain internationally?
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Yes. I mean, we do have some strategic reserves of grain, which would be a great thing to do besides oil, I think. Right now it's hard. The only place that can produce grain quickly enough is Canada and North Dakota. Those places can plant it in March and harvest it in June, so they could contribute to this deficit of about 20 million metric tons of grain that are being held at bay by the war.
Melissa: I know you're a historian. You're not an expert in geopolitics, although you've been doing a lot of good geopolitics for us here. Given what you know about the oceans of grain, about how the world has been made and remade by it, what are some of the things we should maybe be focusing on, looking at, to try to understand what comes next as the Ukrainian crisis wears on?
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Part of it, it depends on whether there's a ceasefire or not and what you do next. Ukraine is geopolitically so important to this whole Russian region. Putin understands that, and I think Putin understands that Ukraine would really be an important counterpoint to Russia. It's a direct competitor for oil. It's a direct competitor for grain. It's a direct competitor for lithium and palladium and things like that. Ukraine's ability to sell to the world might be one of the things that you prioritize.
I would guess that something like 25% of the grain, although grain lands in Ukraine are currently being used to produce grain, there's actually quite a bit that Ukraine could do in the future to become an important part of the world economy. Putin is very aware of this, and very much wants to kind of step on it [unintelligible 00:08:26].
Melissa: Scott Reynolds Nelson, Professor of History at the University of Georgia and author of the new book Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. Thank you so much for joining us.
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.
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