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Article

inflation  

Colin P. Elliott

Inflation typically refers to rising prices. In both ancient and modern societies, inflation is sometimes difficult to identify, measure, and explain with precision. Inflation can occur in the prices of individual goods, the goods and services associated with a particular industry or sector of an economy, or as a macro-phenomenon in which all or most prices in an economy rise. The magnitude of price rises and the duration during which prices stay elevated also have a bearing on how inflation is studied. The ancient world witnessed periods of both slow and steady inflation as well as punctuated surges in prices. Some regions, such as Egypt, offer hundreds of prices, which facilitate quantitative measurements of inflation. In many areas and periods, however, inflation is poorly understood because sufficient numbers of prices do not survive. Scholars, therefore, often use theoretical models and proxy evidence to better understand the nuances and complexity of inflation in classical antiquity.

Article

Agriculture, Food, and the Environment  

Kathleen A. Brosnan and Jacob Blackwell

Throughout history, food needs bonded humans to nature. The transition to agriculture constituted slow, but revolutionary ecological transformations. After 1500 ce, agricultural goods, as well as pests that undermined them, dominated the exchange of species between four continents. In the United States, increasingly more commercial efforts simplified ecosystems. Improved technologies and market mechanisms facilitated surpluses in the 19th century that fueled industrialization and urbanization. In the 20th century, industrial agriculture involved expensive machinery and chemical pesticides and fertilizers in pursuit of higher outputs and profits, while consumers’ relations with their food sources and nature became attenuated.

Article

Cereals, Rituals, and Social Structure  

Benoît Vermander

From the end of the Paleolithic Period onwards, cultivated cereals have interacted with ritual practices and social patterning through a variety of channels: the agrarian cycle provides a society with an array of stories and practices that are enshrined into its system of local knowledge; representations associated with grains develop into everyday practices; and cereal cultivation favorizes (or is triggered by) specific political forms, thus becoming embedded into the rituals through which political entities assert their legitimacy. Interactions between cereals, rituals, and social forms are informed by the characteristics proper to each staple cereal (maize, wheat, rice, sorghum, and millet, among others): the length of the maturation cycle, the degree of solidarity required from the rural community, the environmental requirements linked to its cultivation, its process of transformation into alcohol—all these factors inform the way a cereal inserts itself into a ritual and social complex. Starting with the changes in farming methods that coincided with the First Industrial Revolution, technological, social, and cultural transformations have been seemingly working toward the elimination or transmutation of cereal-based rituals. However, the timing, intensity, and effects of such transformations have differed widely from region to region. Besides, critical observation highlights the fact that these rituals are often hybridized, a phenomenon that repeatedly happened in history. Furthermore, current social processes affecting both producers and consumers may lead to a progressive ritualization of new beliefs and ways of proceeding.

Article

Commodities and Consumption in “Golden Age” Argentina  

Eduardo Elena

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the global trade in commodities forged new economic interconnections and contributed to the emergence of modern ways of life. As one of the leading exporters of temperate goods such as wool, beef, and wheat, Argentina was at the forefront of these trends, and the country underwent remarkable expansion between 1875 and 1913. Although export goods linked Argentina to consumers in Europe and elsewhere, these vital relationships were often obscured by the malleable nature of commodities, the far-flung scope of overseas trade, and the perceived divergence between rural and urban worlds. Within Argentina, similar dynamics were also at work, but commodities became referents in disputes over economic distribution, social inequality, and national development. The tensions between the export sector and an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society geared toward mass consumption raised questions as to how to manage the nation’s wealth—conflicts involving commodities that parallel those of other Latin American societies. By placing the economic history of commodities into conversation with recent research on the social, cultural, and political history of consumption, this article reconsiders Argentina’s “Golden Age” of expansion and its aftermath. The connecting and distancing power of commodities reveals how populations in Argentina and abroad experienced modern capitalism, including its signature transformations of the natural world and everyday life.

Article

Agriculture and the Environment  

Steven Stoll

During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.

Article

Cultivation and Impact of Wheat  

Peter Shewry

Wheat is the most widely grown food crop in the world and the dominant staple crop in temperate countries where it contributes between about 20% and 50% of the total energy intake. About 95% of the wheat grown is hexaploid bread wheat, with tetraploid durum wheat being grown in the hot dry Mediterranean climate and very small volumes of ancient species. About 80% of the dry weight of the mature grain is starchy endosperm. This is the major grain storage tissue, which is separated by milling to give white flour, the outer layers and germ together forming the bran. However, white flour and bran differ significantly in their compositions, with white flour being rich in starch (about 80% dry wt) and protein (about 10% dry wt) and the bran rich in fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals. Most of the wheat consumed by humankind is in the form of bread, noodles, pasta, and other processed foods, and the quality for processing is determined by two major characteristics: the grain texture (hardness) and the viscoelastic properties conferred to dough by the gluten proteins. In addition to being a source of energy, wheat also contributes protein and a range of other essential and beneficial components, particularly dietary fiber. However, because most of these components are concentrated in the bran, it is important to increase the consumption of whole grain products or to improve the composition of white flour. Although there is concern among consumers about possible adverse effects of consuming wheat products on health, these are unlikely to affect more than a small proportion of the population, and wheat should form part of a healthy balanced diet for the vast majority.