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June 16 , 2008

Appletons' Popular Science Monthly, December 1898 (Illustrated)


In 1880 it happened to fall to me to make a forecast of the very great reduction in the price of wheat in Great Britain, which could then be predicated on the lessening cost of transportation from Chicago to the seaboard, thence to British ports, which was then sure to be soon followed by a large reduction in the railway charges for bringing the wheat to Chicago from the other Western centers of distribution. I then alleged that the time was not far off when, even if the price of wheat in Mark Lane were reduced from the then existing rate of fifty-two shillings per quarter to thirty-four shillings, it would still yield as full a return to the Western farmer as it had yielded in previous years at fifty shillings and upward. This forecast attracted great attention, and has since been made the subject of very much bitter controversy, especially since the fall in prices was much more rapid than I then thought it could be, and was carried to a much lower point than any one could have then anticipated. It will be remarked that thirty-four shillings in Mark Lane is at the rate of one dollar and three cents per bushel of sixty pounds.

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From time to time I have almost been forced to defend the position then taken, notably when asked to appear before the Royal Commission on Depression in Agriculture at one of their sessions, where I was kept upon the stand for two full days in the effort of the excellent English farmers and landowners to prove that the American farmer had been ruined by the reduction in the price of wheat, which the majority of that commission attributed to the[146]demonetization of silver. The whole tone of that investigation and of a large part of the treatment of the wheat question in Great Britain has been one of complaint and of alleged wrong to British agriculture because the United States had succeeded in supplying the masses of the people of the United Kingdom with cheap bread, with sufficient profit to themselves to keep up the supply.

Now comes what may be called a cry of alarm from a scientist of highest repute lest England may be deprived even of an adequate supply of wheat, and lest the price should be forced to an exorbitant point. This view of the case was stated at great length by Sir William Crookes when assuming the presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at the recent meeting in Bristol. This address is published in full in the Times of September 8th, the portion devoted to the wheat question filling three out of six columns of closely printed text; the other three are devoted to a complete review of the existing conditions of science. I venture to give a few extracts which will convey to the reader the aspect of the wheat question from this essentially British point of view. Sir William Crookes begins with a sort of apology, which the writer can fully appreciate. He says:

"Statistics are rarely attractive to a listening audience, but they are necessary evils, and those of this evening are unusually doleful.... I am constrained to show that our wheat-producing soil is totally unequal to the strain put upon it. After wearying you with a survey of the universal dearth to be expected, I hope to point a way out of the colossal dilemma. It is the chemist who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities. It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty."

One of the singular facts which becomes quickly apparent to any one who deals with this subject in Great Britain is the inability of the English farmer to think about agriculture except in terms of wheat. Now we have an example of our English scientist of the highest repute who seems to ignore all other grain and to predict future starvation on an expected deficiency in the supply of wheat. Sir William Crookes proceeds:

"The consumption of wheat per head of the population (unit consumption) is over six bushels per annum; and, taking the population at 40,000,000, we require no less than 240,000,000 bushels of wheat, increasing annually by 2,000,000 bushels to supply the increase of population. Of the total amount of wheat consumed in the United Kingdom we grow twenty-five and import seventy-five per cent."

He then deals with the impending scarcity, saying:


"To arrest this impending danger it has been proposed that an amount of 64,000,000 bushels of wheat should be purchased by the state and stored in national granaries, not to be opened except to remedy deterioration of grain, or in view of national disaster rendering starvation imminent. This 64,000,000 bushels would add another fourteen weeks' life to the population."

After dealing with the fact that while it might be possible for the United Kingdom to supply itself with its own wheat at an average of twenty-nine and a half bushels to the acre, he goes on to say that this would require thirteen thousand square miles of British territory, increasing at the rate of one hundred square miles per annum; but he says it would be clearly impossible to assign so large a proportion of the area of the United Kingdom to a single crop without suffering in other matters, adding:

"In any case, owing to our cold, damp climate and capricious weather, the wheat crop is hazardous, and for the present our annual deficit of 180,000,000 bushels must be imported. A permanently higher price for wheat is, I fear, a calamity that ere long must be faced."

I can imagine with what a relish the Royal Commission on the Depression of Agriculture would have received this prophecy of a permanently higher price for wheat. Sir William Crookes goes on to say:

"Wheat is the most sustaining food grain of the great Caucasian race, which includes the peoples of Europe, United States, British America, the white inhabitants of South Africa, Australasia, parts of South America, and the white population of the European colonies."

He then points out how rapidly the consumers of wheat have increased, yet failing to attribute this increase in part to the rapid reduction in the cost. He says:

"In 1871 the bread-eaters of the world numbered 371,000,000; in 1881, 416,000,000; in 1891, 472,600,000; and at the present time they number 516,500,000. The augmentation of the world's bread-eating population in a geometrical ratio is evidenced by the fact that the yearly aggregates grow progressively larger.... To supply 516,500,000 bread-eaters, if each bread-eating unit is to have his usual ration, will require a total of 2,324,000,000 bushels for seed and food. According to the best authorities, the total supplies from the 1897-'98 harvest are 1,921,000,000."

It will be observed that while the English average consumption is said to be six bushels, the average employed in this computation is four and a half bushels per head. He then remarks upon the large harvests for seven years, saying:


"Bread-eaters have almost eaten up the reserves of wheat, and the 1897 harvest being under average, the conditions become serious.... It is clear we are confronted with a colossal problem that must tax the wits of the wisest. Up to recent years the growth of wheat has kept pace with demands. As wheat-eaters increased, the acreage under wheat expanded. We forget that the wheat-growing area is of strictly limited extent, and that a few million acres regularly absorbed soon amount to a formidable number. The present position being so gloomy, let us consider future prospects."

He then deals successively with the United States, Russia, Canada, and other countries. In regard to the United States he remarks:

"Practically there remains no uncultivated prairie land in the United States suitable for wheat-growing. The virgin land has been rapidly absorbed, until at present there is no land left for wheat without reducing the area for maize, hay, and other necessary crops. It is almost certain that within a generation the ever-increasing population of the United States will consume all the wheat grown within its borders, and will be driven to import, and, like ourselves, will scramble for a lion's share of the wheat crop of the world."

It is difficult for a citizen of the United States who has given any attention to the potential of our land to conceive of such views being held by an Englishman of highest scientific intelligence. When I was in England last summer I had a long interview with the editor of one of the papers of widest influence in all Great Britain. I then remarked that there were forces in action in the United States in three or four different directions which would profoundly change all the conditions of British industry, and render the English-speaking people of the United Kingdom and the United States more and more interdependent. It is seldom that one finds more than an occasional half a column in any great English paper devoted to the subject of our economic relations and to the development either of the American iron industry, of its agriculture, or of the cotton production and manufacture. Yet, in all these branches of industry, profound changes of world-wide importance, and yet of greater importance to the people of Great Britain, are now in progress. I may venture to say that this address of Sir William Crookes marks even a more profound ignorance of the forces in action in this country than even I had ever comprehended. Sir William Crookes next submits the following computation:

"The rate of consumption for seed and food by the whole world of bread-eaters was 4.15 bushels per unit per annum for the eight[149] years ending 1878, and at the present time is 4.5 bushels.... Should all the wheat-growing countries add to their area to the utmost capacity, on the most careful calculation the yield would give us only an addition of some 100,000,000 acres, supplying at the average world yield of 12.7 bushels to the acre, 1,270,000,000 bushels, just enough to supply the increase of population among bread-eaters till the year 1931. At the present time there exists a deficit in the wheat area of thirty-one thousand square miles.... When provision shall have been made if possible to feed 230,000,000 units likely to be added to the bread-eating populations by 1931, by the complete occupancy of the arable areas of the temperate zone now partially occupied, where can be grown the additional 330,000,000 bushels of wheat required ten years later by a hungry world? If bread fails—not only us, but all the bread-eaters of the world—what are we to do? We are born wheat-eaters. Other races, vastly superior to us in numbers, but differing widely in material and intellectual progress, are eaters of Indian corn, rice, millet, and other grains; but none of these grains have the food value, the concentrated health-sustaining power of wheat, and it is on this account that the accumulated experience of civilized mankind has set wheat apart as the fit and proper food for the development of muscle and brains."

Sir William then proceeds to deal with the salvation by chemistry. But before taking notes from that part of his address, is it not singular to remark this tendency of the scientist as well as of the English farmer to think only in terms of wheat, wholly ignoring other grains? It may be interesting to point out the exact difference in the nutrients.

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Date release: November 09, 2013

Nonfiction, Science & Nature
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