Food and the Great Khan

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant who travelled through much of Asia in the late thirteenth century.  As with any tale from history, there are those who are sceptical about the veracity of his stories and even about whether he went to China at all (he doesn’t mention the Great Wall, the sceptics complain). However, most scholars agree that he did go. Monetary systems and waterways were of more significance for his interest in how the realm was run than Great Walls. Kublai Khan, the story goes, took a shine to Marco Polo and made him his emissary, responding favourably to a Westerner modest enough to want to learn from others rather than to explain why ‘West means best’.

Book II Chapter 27 of the Travels of Marco Polo talks about the way Kublai Khan dealt with food shortages.


The Great Khan sends every year his commissioners to ascertain whether any of his subjects have suffered in their crops from unfavourable weather, from storms of wind or violent rains, or by locusts, worms, or any other plague; and in such cases he not only refrains from exacting the usual tribute of that year, but furnishes them from his granaries with so much corn as is necessary for their subsistence, as well as for sowing their land.

With this view, in times of great plenty, he causes large purchases to be made of such kinds of grain as are most serviceable to them, which is stored in granaries provided for the purpose in the several provinces, and managed with such care as to ensure its keeping for three or four years without damage. It is his command, that these granaries be always kept full, in order to provide against times of scarcity; and when, in such seasons, he disposes of the grain for money, he requires for four measures no more than the purchaser would pay for one measure in the market.“

The Great Khan had a system similar to that which we propose. He had buffer stocks in the form of granaries, which he replenished in times of plenty when prices were low. He released grain from the granaries in times of shortage when prices were high. He does not quite do what we recommend, which is release the additional supplies onto the market, thereby bringing the price down by the natural workings of supply and demand. Instead, he sells at a price which is deliberately kept low. But in essence it is precisely what we would recommend, a sustainable system where food stocks are built up in times of plenty and released in times of scarcity, thereby ironing out the natural price volatility that can inflict damage on both producers (if prices are too low) and consumers (if they are too high).

Though Marco Polo was willing to learn from Kublai Khan, a lot of those who manage today’s organisations dedicated to dealing with food insecurity and famine in the modern day won’t even consider buffer stocks. They don’t seem able to learn a lesson from Asia. They face a mental blockage when they even contemplate the idea – perhaps a Great Wall?

One Response so far.

  1. Excellent commentary, especially about the mental blockages of many modern economists, and the politicians who pay homage to them. An Irish economist who is also very critical of this closed thinking is David McWilliams. He has a lively and amusing podcast on It may give you solace to listen to it!