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Biological Globalization: the other Grain Invasion


  • Alan L. Olmstead


  • Paul W. Rhode



Contemporary accounts of the history of globalization place the grain trade in a leading role. Narrowing price gaps for wheat in world markets serve as the key indicator of increasing market integration. And the chief example of an early policy backlash is the rising protectionism of European importers in response to the “Great Grain Invasion” of New World grain in the late nineteenth century. These accounts focus on the important role of falling transportation cost, but neglect other crucial biological innovations that allowed expanding the wheat cultivation in the new lands, what we call the “other grain invasion.” This paper documents that over the 1866-1930 the average distance of world wheat production from the core consumer markets doubled, as the wheat frontier moved on much harsher (colder and more arid) climates. Examining the detailed histories of major producers on the periphery, we show that this move involved, and indeed required extensive experimentation by farmers and crop scientists to find new suitable cultivars that could thrive in the new environments and survive the evolving pest and disease threats. Flows of germplasm and knowledge about breeding occurred not only from center to periphery, but also and importantly within the periphery and from the periphery to the center as an increasing integrated global community of crop scientists emerged over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, we speculate about why in some regions pioneering plant breeders are heralded as national heroes whereas in others they are sadly under-appreciated.

Suggested Citation

  • Alan L. Olmstead & Paul W. Rhode, 2006. "Biological Globalization: the other Grain Invasion," ICER Working Papers 9-2006, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  • Handle: RePEc:icr:wpicer:9-2006

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    Cited by:

    1. Julian M. Alston & Philip G. Pardey, 2014. "Agriculture in the Global Economy," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 28(1), pages 121-146, Winter.

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