Excess of Land

Evidence suggests that sometime after 1850 the world entered a period in which available technology for wheat production was sufficiently powerful to produce amounts of wheat above what was needed for food and seed on the land suitable for wheat cultivation. Disparities in wealth undoubtedly kept some people hungry and malnourished, but their starvation was a matter of distribution, not lack of natural resources to produce wheat. Economic historian Wilfred Malenbaum analyzed the changes in global wheat acreage, production, and yields between 1885 and 1939. He distinguished between the "necessary" acres needed to produce wheat for food and seed and the number of acres needed to produce the total world wheat harvest at average global yields; he called the difference "excess acreage." He found that from 1885-89 to 1899-1904, the world had an average excess acreage of 11 million acres (4.6 million hectares), or 6.9 percent excess. From 1904-09 to 1934-39, the excess grew from 14.9 million acres (6.2 million hectares) to 31.0 million acres (12.8 million hectares), an increase of from 8.6 percent to 15 percent excess.14

Malenbaum thus argued that the farmers of the world planted too much land to wheat in relation to the amount of land needed to provide food and seed. During the half century after 1885, the excess planted became larger, causing the price of wheat to fall absolutely and relatively to other commodities. Only the disruptions of nor mal farming patterns in World War I had marked effects on these trends. For a variety of reasons, farmers persisted in planting more land in wheat than was needed to satisfy the effective market demand for the cereal.

Not only was too much land being planted, but the opening of new wheat lands and the construction of railroads, especially in the United States, after 1870 led to a flood of American cereals into Europe. These new imports took a tremendous toll on European farmers who were raising wheat. Most important, it was cheaper to grow wheat in North America and ship it to Europe than it was to grow and consume the grain there. In Germany, for example, production costs for winter wheat in 1910-14 ranged from $0.90 to $1.08 per bushel. Spring wheat in North America, however, had a production cost range from $0.45 in Montana to $0.75 in the Canadian prairies. Transporting wheat from Montana to Liverpool cost only $0.15 per bushel. To make matters even worse for the European farmers, the North American wheat was almost invariably of better quality for making raised loaves of bread.15 As a result, American and Canadian growers were highly competitive with European farmers.

Europe itself was complex in terms of how different national economies related to wheat. Some countries, such as Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia, were wheat exporters during the period 1885-1939. Others, such as Germany, moved from being exporters before the 1880s to being importers due to competition from North American wheat. Still others, such as France, were largely self-sufficient, with occasional supplies for export. Finally, there were the British, who, after repeal of the Corn Laws, became importers on a massive scale in the last part of the nineteenth century.16

Governments of these countries, both importers and exporters, had to come to grips with a critical problem: How does a state govern its people and its countryside to ensure a regular supply of food at a reasonable price? This question has always been with human societies in one form or another, but it is crucial to see that the advent of a global, competitive market in wheat completely reshaped the issues that had to be faced. In Europe and the Neo-Europes, the specific question was how should a government best ensure its nation a regular supply of wheat when that crop is being grown in excess quantities and can be shipped cheaply all over the world.

Individual farmers and landowners in Europe and the Neo-Europes, in contrast, had a much smaller set of concerns, but they, too, were of critical importance in establishing the framework for decision making: How should this land be used so that the farmer or landowner will be well served this year and be in a condition to continue next year? At stake were decisions on how to exert human labor; how to deploy land, crop species, and other resources; and how to maintain an individual's power, wealth, and social prestige.

We can think of these sets of questions for farmers and landowners as the "micro-political ecological" concerns, in contrast to the "macropolitical ecological" concerns of how a government should control its people and resources to ensure a food supply. Governments, landowners, and farmers gave different answers to these questions, according to their circumstances. Critical to their dilemmas, however, was the fact that in the half century following the repeal of Britain's Corn Laws, too much land was given to wheat while the technology for a global market emerged. Wheat growers everywhere were in deep competition with one another, and everyone was looking for new ways to produce wheat more cheaply.

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