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Food that can be stored can be traded and trade leads to democracy

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on grain, fruit and the economic underpinnings of democracy.

When I was young, I had a mug on a shelf in my bedroom, and on it was a poem about a farmer-a simple hymn to self-sufficiency. Here’s a bit of it:

I eat my own lamb,
My own chickens and ham

I shear my own fleece and I wear it.

I have lawns, I have bowers

I have fruits, I have flowers

The lark is my morning alarmer.

In fact, however, human beings have been moving away from self-sufficiency and toward mutual interdependence for 100,000 years. We supply ever more of our needs from the work of other people, because we have specialized as producers and diversified our tastes as consumers.

Trade is much older than farming: Australian aborigines used to trade stone axes for sting-ray barbs over long distances, showing that hunter-gatherers can benefit from exchange. The advent of agriculture accelerated the trend toward specialization-but not everywhere. In temperate zones, farming encouraged trade, but in the tropics subsistence farmers often ate and wore their own produce.

I have been pondering why this difference emerged since reading a fine new paper by Stephen Haber of Stanford and Victor Menaldo of the University of Washington. They argue that, historically, stable democracy has depended on the growing of grain, because it is a tradeable commodity and is best grown on a small scale. Therefore, they say, the parts of the world suited to grain-growing have developed the institutions that build equitably distributed human capital, and hence democracy. This explains why democracy flourishes where rainfall is modest.

Their idea has just as much to say about economic development as about politics. The key is perishability. Where farmers produced food that could be stored, especially cereal grain and pulses (peas and beans), trade flourished, specialization increased and cities emerged, filled with manufacturers, soldiers and priests who swapped their outputs for the grain supplied by the farmers.

Tropical fruit, however, was harder to store and therefore harder to trade, as were other tropical crops like cassava root, which rots after a week or so. This goes some way to explaining the lack of cities in the tropics before the industrial era: You simply cannot ship bananas to an urban elite in the way you can ship grain. Hence the invention of olive oil and wine as tradeable versions of olives and grapes. The ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean depended heavily on trading networks that brought grain, oil and wine to cities.

How do pastoralists fit into the hypothesis? Herds of sheep, goats or cattle are portable; they’re certainly easy to steal, since they provide their own motive power. This partly explains the chronic problem of brigandage in pastoral societies-think Afghanistan, or the Scottish border in the Middle Ages. However, unlike grain or olive oil, sheep and cattle need food and water if they are not to perish-in both senses of that word. This made them hard to trade, especially by sea.

Messrs. Haber and Menaldo point out that the domination of the modern fruit trade by large corporations has less to do with recent globalization than with the commodity itself. A producer of perishable fruit is at the mercy of a trader, who can hold out for a better price in the knowledge that the commodity will lose value. The producer’s solution is to become a processor, capable of canning, drying or (with sugar cane) refining his crop. This rewards large-scale production-and serfdom. Dole once produced 75% of the world’s pineapples from one Hawaiian island.

The plants themselves determine this difference in perishability. Fruits are full of sugars, because their job is to be eaten immediately so that seeds may be dispersed by birds and bats. Cereal grains and pulses are packed with dry starch because they have the opposite ambition-to survive uneaten till the next spring.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  wall-street-journal