Food Systems Past And Present: The History And Politics Of Grain

Mabel Winter | 14 December 2022

British History / Early Modern / Europe / Food History / Sheffield History / Sheffield Projects / Transnational History / Ukraine / Uncategorised 

Group discussions and displays from the Sheffield Wheat Experiment
Photos reproduced with permission from the Sheffield Wheat Experiment

The politics of grain found new relevance at the beginning of this year when Putin’s war with Ukraine sparked fears of a ‘global food crisis’. Ukraine is a significant exporter of grain, and so the blockades imposed by Russia created widespread concern over hunger and price rises, contributing to the cost-of-living crisis in the UK that had already spiralled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The war has therefore brought to the fore the issue of global food security.

However, the war in Ukraine is not the only factor at play, and global food security is not a new issue. Indeed, the war merely served to exacerbate existing concerns over food security and sustainability that are also connected to climate change, population growth, and the ways in which we approach and manage food production. In order to address these issues, we need to understand how and why our food system is the way it is and draw not only on new technology and methods but on examples of past production, regulation, and commercialisation to inform our future. 

The AHRC-project ‘The Politics of the English Grain Trade, 1315-1815’, which began in January 2022 (a month before the invasion of Ukraine), aims to contribute to such discussions. The project examines shifts in the balance of population and food supply, and the subsequent development of international markets in grain that signalled the beginnings of England’s structural dependence on imports. In addition, the project analyses the popular politics of grain and changing cultural values that shaped regulation and prompted action, protest, and riots, both in England and in the important Baltic ports of Gdańsk (Danzig) and Hamburg. 

The project examines these issues through the concept of commodification, the process through which something comes to be seen as a morally neutral commodity regulated by the market rather than by ethical or moral values. The project’s first steps have involved building two databases: one on the regulation and litigation concerning grain milling in England, and the other on the level of imports and exports between England and the Baltic. The databases will provide the bases from which to conduct quantitative and qualitative analysis of the grain trade in a transnational context.  

But how can historical knowledge be used in present practice? One excellent example is the Sheffield Wheat Experiment (SWE), an organisation that is highlighting and helping to combat concerns over food supply, security, and sustainability. The SWE aims to reimagine Sheffield as a self-sustaining city which has its own ecosystem and a local food economy.

It does so by encouraging inhabitants to grow their own wheat on their land, allotments, and in their back gardens, and to reconnect with every stage in the production of the food they consume. The wheat grown is a mixture of heritage wheat varieties, which is more nutritious and require less fertilisers and pesticides than that used for industrial scale production, and allows for greater diversity as it can adapt to different conditions year on year. 

The system imagined, and being implemented, by SWE represents a return to the historic system in Sheffield and indeed across England. SWE kindly invited us along to their recent ‘threshing day’, where growers came to process their wheat, to talk about the history of grain, its moral significance, and its commodification. 

In the past, England’s food system was far more localised and relied on an interconnected domestic market for grain. However, population growth, urbanisation and the development of the domestic grain trade undermined local self-sufficiency, creating greater market dependence and harvest sensitivity.

The evidence from mill litigation, cases in the court of Exchequer between 1558-1815 that make up the first stage in our database, is already highlighting the impact of population growth and urbanisation in England on the market and changing cultural perceptions of grain. From the early seventeenth century, litigants and deponents began to discuss the insufficiency of local mills to grind the grain of all the inhabitants in the local area and explained this in terms of population growth.

This was most evident in market towns, where deponents report vast increases in population that put pressure on local services and the food supply. It was often emphasised that such pressures had a greater impact on the poor, who had neither the land to grow their own grain nor the means to buy grain at competitive prices. Such historical discourses resonate with the discourse surrounding today’s increasing reliance on food banks.

Population growth began to affect how people thought about grain and how governments tried to regulate the supply. Tracing the impact of regulatory and cultural changes surrounding grain can provide a deeper historical perspective for contemporary discussions and debates concerning our food system and sustainable food supply more widely. Organisations like SWE are already beginning to bring these historical perspectives into conversation with the present and future, reconnecting the community with the local environment and economy. 

The war in Ukraine has brought problems of food sustainability to the fore. However, much more attention on this issue is required, particularly in the face of rapid climate change and an increasing population. Understanding the past and how we came to find ourselves in the current situation must feature in discussions of how to shape our future.

Mabel Winter is Research Associate on the AHRC-project The Politics of the English Grain Trade, 1315-1815. Mabel’s research focuses on the social, economic, and political history of England. Her first monograph, entitled Banking, Projecting and Politicking in Early Modern England: The Rise and Fall of Thompson and Company, 1671-1678, was published earlier this year with Palgrave Macmillan. She Tweets @DrMabel_Winter