December 8, 2023

It makes the world go ‘round

Growing and selling wheat is a trade that has been around since the advent of farming thousands of years ago. Wheat is believed to have been initially grown in neolithic times as a way to provide sustenance for families, much like its purpose today, making it a strong culinary connector to our prehistoric roots.

As long as there has been wheat, there has been bread. The oldest loaf likely dates back to 14,000 years ago, and there’s evidence that cured meat was even paired with it (yep, that’d be an ancient sandwich).

But bread’s role hasn’t been purely digestive. It has also inspired powerful systems of economy and control. Governments have time and time again managed the production and trade of wheat for populations in ways both social and political. That’ll only intensify as a warming climate jeopardizes the very systems that feed, employ, and connect the world.

Come along, let’s break some bread (or pasta, or cake, or sourdough), and get to the bottom of wheat.

Origin story

The great wheat trade

The idea of growing a surplus of wheat for trade came about in the ancient times between 5500 and 4500 BCE. Back then, Egypt built massive grain silos to feed themselves and to trade with neighboring regions like Canaan, Lebanon, Nubia, and Punt.

Ancient Egyptian trade routes throughout the Near East.

Graphic: Clarisa Diaz / Quartz

Societal changes have been directly connected to the grain trade. Durum wheat became a crop in Italy (pdf) around 450 BC and became the main type of wheat grown and traded during the Roman Empire. The Romans took the wheat trade further by selling the crop on merchant ships across the Mediterranean as the empire expanded. Emperors famously threw bread at the masses to signal the plebeians were being provided for, even if they weren’t.

By 51 AD, a prolonged drought and growing population in Rome led to a food shortage riot where the plebeians threw stale bread crusts back at the Caesar. The domestic shortage of wheat to feed the people ultimately led in part to the Roman Empire’s demise, but its trade network spread wheat all over the world.

Ancient Roman trade routes throughout Europe, Africa, and the Near East

Graphic: Clarisa Diaz / Quartz

Not surprisingly, trading wheat played a major role in colonial expansion. In the 1700s, wheat was the largest export crop for American colonies. US president George Washington chose to diversify crops away from tobacco, and American colonists paid for their imports, mostly from England, with flour. Having wheat gave countries not only food, but power, which in part allowed the US, Russia, Canada, and Australia to develop their agricultural sectors and geopolitical dominance.

By the digits

20%: Share of daily protein and food calories in the human diet provided by wheat

1.8 billion: Bushels of wheat US farmers produced in 2023

37.3 million: Acres of US farmland growing wheat

$10.2 billion: Amount Australia makes annually as the world’s biggest wheat and meslin (a rye-wheat mixture) exporter, exporting around 30 million tons in 2022

$8.7 billion: Amount Russia makes annually as the world’s second biggest wheat and meslin exporter, exporting around 22 million tons in 2022

$3.8 billion: Amount Indonesia, Egypt, and China each spend annually as the world’s top wheat and meslin importers

Fun possible fact

Egyptian pharaohs were buried with wheat, known as “mummy wheat”… or it may just all be a myth.

The fields of change

Today, international commodity markets primarily drive the price of wheat and its trade dynamics. While the 2008 financial crisis was going on, grain prices were also highly inflated because of global food shortages caused by panic buying and stocking up by governments, even though sufficient international supply of wheat was available. From 2007 to 2008 alone, the global price of wheat doubled to $10 a bushel.

Image for article titled The wheat trade: More than bread

Graphic: Clarisa Diaz

More recently, the international grain trade has been a focal point of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during which shipping ports have been blocked and Ukrainian wheat silos have been ransacked. Russia and Ukraine supplied 30% of the world’s wheat before the war, which began in 2022. Uncertainty of wheat supply, particularly for countries with existing shortages, led to fears of another global food crisis that year. For the most part though, it didn’t happen, as strong wheat harvests and shipments did in fact make their way out of unblocked ports in Ukraine.

But the shifting winds over wheat remain. Climate change is expected to make it harder to grow wheat because of drought and extreme weather. The Great Plains in the US, known for being America’s breadbasket, may get drier and return to a Dust Bowl, when wheat yields in the US reached a peak loss of 32% in 1933. Land for growing wheat in the US has also declined by more than 39 million acres since 1981. As competition in global wheat markets grows, farmers’ returns for planting wheat in the US have declined relative to other crops like corn and soy.


“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” American chef, TV personality, and author Julia Child, commenting on the state of bread in the US

Pop quiz

Who was the first female athlete to be featured on the Wheaties cereal box?

A. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin
B. Basketball player Ann Meyers
C. Multi-sport athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias
D. Tennis player Shirley Fry

The answer is seeded at the end of this email.

This one scary trick 😬

A world without wheat as we know it

Drought and heat, referred to as “hot drought,” will most likely reduce wheat yields around the world. The high sensitivity of wheat to warm temperatures above 75°F (24°C) will make it hard to grow anywhere except for northern England, and reduced areas in the US, South Africa, India, Japan, and Russia between 2050 and 2100, according to researchers.

Global warming has inspired a race to breed a new heat-resistant type of wheat. But genetically modified crops are controversial for health advocates preferring to buy unrefined or more original forms of wheat, as well as farmers concerned about soil health. Most notably, the seed company Monsanto developed a genetically modified wheat in the late 1990s that was resistant to Roundup herbicide—which was then shelved in 2004 amid market concern and rejection from foreign buyers.

One thing is clear: Bread as a staple food will persist, and the country or company that is able to produce the next dominant type of wheat will have significant geopolitical power in shaping the future.


You’re having a meal, and you want something alongside it. What is the best alternative to wheat flour bread?

  • Spelt loaf
  • Harcha
  • Cornbread
  • Tortillas

We want your culinary takes—tell us what you’d reach for in our one-question poll, and if you’re feeling generous, your best wheat-free bread recipes.

💬 Let’s talk!

In last week’s poll about the Taylor Swift economy, 44% of you said you think next year’s solar eclipse will affect the economy, while 32% think the US presidential election will. Only 2% have high hopes for the upcoming Super Bowl’s economic effects. And 22% of you said the Paris Olympics will move some GDP numbers.

🐤 Tweet this!

🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?

This obsession was written by Clarisa Diaz (from the WheatFields of Kansas, plugging her hometown bakery), and edited by Morgan Haefner (from the wheat fields of Wisconsin, seeking a gluten refuge).

The correct answer to the pop quiz is C., Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Until next time… we’re waving you the wheat, a tactic used to distract one’s opponent, if you’re a Kansas Jayhawks basketball fan.

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