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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
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