Ukraine has what may be the richest soil in the world,” writes University of Georgia historian Scott Reynolds Nelson in his stunning new book Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. "In 1768, Tsarina Catherine II sent one hundred thousand Russian soldiers across this region and the Black Sea to capture it." His goal: to found a Russian empire “by seizing the steppe, planting wheat there, then feeding all of Europe”.
It wasn't just the fertile land that made Ukraine such a prize. Nelson writes evocatively of the "black roads" (chorni shlyakhy in Ukrainian), the "ancient ox tracks that cross the Ukrainian plains to the ports of the Black Sea", where grain could be collected on ships and shipped to the Mediterranean, the gateway to the lucrative European wheat market.
Two and a half centuries later, Russian soldiers have returned to besiege Ukraine, and another Russian leader dreams of an empire with easy access to the Black Sea and Europe. Russia's latest attack on its western neighbor has thrown global food markets into chaos, with prices soaring.
Wheat prices have already reached their highest level in 60 years.
Today, Russia is a world powerhouse in wheat, the world's third largest producer of staple crops and its largest exporter. As in 1768, much of its most productive farmland lies east of the Ukrainian border, making it largely dependent on the same "black roads" (now covered with paved roads and railroads) to reach the steps. Ukraine is also a major wheat exporter and has recently become a maize powerhouse, supplying China and its booming meat industry with almost a third of its feed maize imports.
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What does it mean when a war of conquest descends on one of the world's greatest granaries in the 21st century? With conflicting trade routes and markets disrupted by the Russian invasion, wheat prices have already reached their highest level in 60 years. This far exceeds the peak of the early 2010s, which led to bread riots in the Middle East that helped spark the Arab Spring and Syria's still-smoldering civil war. "It's a staple," Nelson explains, "and when you double its price, it changes everything."
I recently spoke with Nelson about what the Russian invasion of Ukraine means for a culture that provides about a fifth of the world's food calories.