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Cargill, Continental, Louis Dreyfus, Bunge, and Andr‚--who would have recognized these names before the 1972 Russian wheat coup? But the five major grain companies not only control the international trade in everything from cooking oil to animal feeds, Washington Post reporter Morgan discovered; they also operate as the private fiefdoms of seven all-powerful families. Morgan starts with some 1975 Russian wheat deals (In scenes that might have been lifted out of a thriller), then flashes back to chronicle the growth of the grain trade from British industrialization and repeal of the Corn Laws forward. The stroke of repeal ""opened England to the wheat of the world""; prompted settlement of vast territories in Russia, the Argentine, Australia, the American West; and sent shrewd traders from the commercial Rhine--several of them Jews, barred from established occupations, and all from close-knit families--out to Bessarabia or Minnesota, ""where surpluses were a problem as early as 1860."" It's a feature of Morgan's engrossing book that he does well by these globe-girdling, globe-shrinking buccaneers--even as he documents, in later days, their connivance with the U.S. government to solve the perennial grain-surplus problem by inducing everyone to eat like Americans. But equally important in tipping the balance from excess to shortage was Khrushchev's 1962 decision, for the first time in Soviet history, to compensate for a poor harvest by buying grain abroad: ""Henceforth, the Soviet Union would be the 'X' factor in world grain markets."" By 1972, the Russians too were buying grain not to bake bread but, in the American way, to feed livestock; and with the dollar shrinking and the balance of payments deficit soaring (not, says Morgan, because of ""corporate lobbying""), Nixon decontrolled grain exports to Russia, setting the stage for the massive inflationary sales of 1975. Morgan carries the story through the trafficking of Tongsun Park, whose rice link he and a colleague uncovered, and the fall of Cook Industries, the one big public company. Altogether, he's managed an exemplary synthesis that gives us the whole world in a grain of wheat.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1979
Publisher: Viking