The US creates a wheat market in Southeast Asia that comes back via Jollibee. : Planet Money Southeast Asia is one of the biggest growth markets for American wheat. Where did this taste for wheat come from and who is responsible?

The Wheat Whisperer

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

I am waiting in line at a relatively-ish new fast food restaurant that opened near my house in Washington, D.C. Go ahead. You can go ahead of me.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

And I'm in the drive-through of a location near my house just outside of Chicago. And, Kenny, you and I have been looking at this menu for weeks.

MALONE: Yes. We have been salivating, like, planning our orders. And it is finally the moment.

WONG: Hold on. It's my turn to come up to the drive-through here.

(SOUNDBITE OF WINDOW OPENING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOLLIBEE EMPLOYEE #1: Welcome to Jollibee. What can I get for you?

MALONE: Yes. Jollibee, if you're unfamiliar, is a fast-food chain from the Philippines. It is one of the fastest growing restaurant companies in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED JOLLIBEE EMPLOYEE #2: Hello, jolly evening. Welcome to Jollibee.

MALONE: Hi. What's - what are the, like - the marquee items? Like, what are the best items here?

UNIDENTIFIED JOLLIBEE EMPLOYEE #2: OK. So we have the Jolly Spaghetti. If you want to try...

WONG: Some of the premier items on the Jollibee menu are the Jolly Spaghetti, the Yumburger and the Chicken Joy.

UNIDENTIFIED JOLLIBEE EMPLOYEE #2: And if you want to try our dessert, we also have a peach mango pie.

MALONE: That all sounds amazing.

UNIDENTIFIED JOLLIBEE EMPLOYEE #2: The Chicken Joy is also one of the top sellers of our store. We also have a regular chicken. And we also have a spicy chicken.

WONG: The Jolly Spaghetti is a wheat noodle served with a sweet banana-ketchup sauce. And the Chicken Joy is chicken fried in a crispy, wheat-based breading.

MALONE: In fact, most of the signature items on this menu use wheat, which - I don't know - on the surface, OK. But the thing about grains like wheat is that every region of the world has been shaped by the grains that happen to grow in that region.

WONG: Corn and barley in North America. Quinoa in South America. Teff in East Africa. Rice in Asia.

MALONE: And so the fact that this major fast food export from the Philippines, a place that does not grow wheat, uses wheat in its signature items, that is noteworthy because it is part of a much bigger story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Hello. And welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong. The story of wheat in Southeast Asia goes back to the Cold War and a decade's long strategy to sell wheat to new places.

MALONE: It's a strategy that starts with a grain surplus and leads to a network of highly trained agents of wheat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: OK. I just bought about $50 worth of food.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: The year is 1954. And U.S. farmers have a problem. They have grown too much wheat, a surplus.

WONG: A surplus will start to drive down prices. So the U.S. government stepped in and started buying this excess wheat.

MALONE: But now the government has all this wheat. And it's costing a fortune to store. And the U.S. government looks up and realizes, wait a second, this is a problemtunity (ph).

WONG: Yes, because 1954 is the thick of the Cold War. The U.S. was looking for opportunities to make friends overseas. And so the U.S. thought, maybe the way to a country's heart is through its stomach.

MALONE: And so a new food aid program was born, Food for Peace. President Eisenhower starts signing over massive shipments of agricultural products to countries like Yugoslavia, Pakistan and India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Five hundred eighty-seven million bushels of wheat and 22 million bags of rice to be paid in rupees will be moved to India.

WONG: Five hundred eighty-seven million bushels of wheat weighs the same as, like, 100,000 statues of liberty. It is so much wheat.

MALONE: So much wheat. And, look; Food for Peace was an aid program. Yes. Like, the U.S. would sell this food at a discount, sometimes give it away for free. But it was also part of a bigger plan to find new customers for American agricultural products.

WONG: So these shipments were part aid, part Cold War strategy and part business strategy.

MALONE: And if you're thinking about this as a business strategy, if you're trying to open a new market for a product, then you would ideally find a place with a huge opportunity, a country where you can get in early, introduce something new and have it catch on.

WONG: For U.S. wheat, one of those places was Southeast Asia, a region that grows rice, not wheat. And so Food for Peace shipments start arriving in countries like South Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

MALONE: Patricio Abinales was just a little kid in the Philippines when American wheat started showing up in his town.

PATRICIO ABINALES: I grew up in the - southern Philippines in this small town, which is a small frontier town.

WONG: Patricio's frontier was the rainforest.

ABINALES: It was a rainforest. I remember, you know, I got cockatoos flying in through the backyard. You know, the cockatoos?

WONG: Patricio is now a professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawai'i Manoa. But back when he was a kid in the Philippines, he remembers the American wheat started to show up when his town was having rice shortages.

ABINALES: So there was this recurring sort of lack of food. And I remember that because we started getting all these bags which says, a gift of the American people.

WONG: A gift of the American people. Patricio doesn't know if they were specifically Food for Peace bags or some other government program. But for sure, they were bags of American wheat flour.

MALONE: Had you ever had wheat at all, like, ever? Never?

ABINALES: No. No, no, didn't know how to - what to do with it.

MALONE: Now, wheat wasn't new to all of the Philippines for, honestly, not great reasons. Spain and then the United States had all colonized the Philippines, centuries of often violent rule. And during that time, lots of Western religions and customs and foods were introduced.

WONG: So if you were living in a place like Manila, you would almost certainly eaten wheat before even if it wasn't a staple in your diet.

MALONE: But that was not the case for Patricio in his more secluded frontier town.

WONG: He distinctly remembers the first time he got a taste of bread baked with that gift of the American people, wheat flour.

MALONE: What do you think when you take that first bite? What do you feel?

ABINALES: And it was tasteless. I'm sorry. It had no taste, you know?

MALONE: (Laughter).

ABINALES: Are you Catholic? Have you ever had first communion?

MALONE: I have had communion. Yes.

ABINALES: Yeah, the taste of the wafer. Like, this is the body of Christ? My God, it's tasteless. That's it.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: And you're like, this is the bread of the United States?

ABINALES: Yeah. It was like, what the heck? What are the Americans introducing to us?

MALONE: Now, this introduction of wheat, this strategy was not about changing an entire diet, phasing out rice and replacing it with wheat. That was never going to happen. This was about, like, trying to win a teeny, teeny corner of the dinner plate with wheat.

WONG: Because with a region as big as Southeast Asia, even a teeny corner could be worth a lot of money for American wheat growers.

MALONE: And if you are an American wheat farmer, like, on one hand, it is helpful that the U.S. government has this Food for Peace program, that it is literally flying your product into new markets like a free sample. But it's not the greatest advertising if people don't really know the best ways to use that wheat and end up baking - I don't know - tasteless, communion wafer, white bread, maybe.

WONG: And so American wheat farmers had started taking steps to get ahead of this problem, hiring this kind of network of wheat agents to open foreign outposts in countries that were getting U.S. government wheat. And to tell you the story of how these agents of wheat tackled this problem, let us introduce you to Roy Chung.

MALONE: Is it, like, 3 a.m. where you are?

ROY CHUNG: Yeah. That's right. We are bakers. That is why we say, you know, we bake while you sleep. We don't have a problem waking up in the morning.

WONG: Roy Chung remembers when the agents of wheat showed up to his town.

MALONE: This was the late 1970s. Roy's father ran a small, English-style bakery in Southeast Asia - in Malaysia in particular. And Roy says his dad's was - it was a real artful kind of baking, like small batches, handmade things like wheat buns filled with grated coconut.

WONG: And then one day, this guy showed up to his dad's bakery. He said he was with this American group representing U.S. wheat farmers.

CHUNG: He came and asked if was possible for him to use the bakery for a demonstration. And of course, my dad don't speak English. So I'm the interpreter.

WONG: The purpose of the demonstration that day was to show local Malaysian bakers the techniques and recipes that worked really well with American wheat.

MALONE: What did this person teach at the bakery that day?

CHUNG: He was making bread of different shapes that was different from what my father made. He was also putting a little bit of science behind the way he teaches.

MALONE: Roy was a college student at this time. He was studying engineering. He says his dad was a great baker. But this demonstration was the first time he'd really heard somebody talk about baking like engineering and science.

WONG: The biology of yeast. The chemistry of baking powder. The physics of a proper proof. Roy soaked it all in. And this presenter seemed to notice.

CHUNG: And then at the end of the session, he says, you look like you're ready to go to work, you know? Would you like to come join us?

MALONE: And that was the moment that Roy was recruited into the agents of wheat.

WONG: Roy has spent the last 40 years in the field in Southeast Asia. And after the break, the surprisingly dramatic life of an elite wheat agent.

MALONE: Double-0 levin. Anybody? Anybody?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: Roy Chung's official title is bakery consultant, which sounds kind of quaint. But really, this job can get dramatic. Take, for example, the time in the '90s in Vietnam.

MALONE: Vietnam at this moment was just starting to open up. So Roy packed up his wheat flour samples and headed for the border.

CHUNG: I check-in flour and bring the flour inside. And, of course, you know, the customs, they were suspicious, you know? It looks like white powder. Maybe it's heroin?

MALONE: (Laughter).

CHUNG: So I said, no. I show it to you. I open up the bag. I take the flour and stick it into my mouth. And I say, hey, this amount, if it is heroin, I'm dead already.

MALONE: (Laughter).

CHUNG: OK? I will be dead immediately.

MALONE: Airport customs guys apparently look at each other like, hey, he's probably right. That's not heroin. Roy got his flour into Vietnam.

WONG: Roy works specifically in Southeast Asia. He started his job in the 1970s. And he works for an organization called U.S. Wheat Associates. It's a group funded by wheat farmers and also the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And they send people like Roy to promote American wheat all around the world.

MALONE: And Roy says when he first started his job, they were seeing promising signs in Southeast Asia. It was 1979. People were starting to move to cities. Incomes were rising. Diets were changing, including a little bit of wheat here and there. And it looked like, on paper, the region was ready to make that jump from, you know, sure, U.S. wheat is fine when it's cheap or free to actual export market.

WONG: Roy's job was to figure out, where do you even start with that? Well, factories that make crackers and bread and noodles, they buy their flour from mills. And mills are the ones that are buying the raw wheat. And so Roy says his first assignment was just to figure out, where are the flour mills?

CHUNG: So we do not have a list of where the flour mills were, who were in charge of the flour mills. I was given the task to go and find out where, in which country you have flour mills.

WONG: Roy figures, let's start the research in Malaysia, with my dad's bakery. He uses flour. What mill does that come from?

MALONE: So Roy gets a flour seller's name from his dad, who then gives him, I guess, another name, and then eventually gets another name or whatever and ends up with some mill's address. He has to take a boat to get there.

CHUNG: You just go and knock on doors and say who you are. I'm trying to learn your industry and see whether you are - be interested for me to give you information about U.S. wheat. And that's what we did.

WONG: In the beginning, Roy was kind of a door-to-door salesman, except he didn't even know which doors to knock on. And as Roy builds this directory of Southeast Asian mills, he learns they are buying lots of wheat.

MALONE: What do you discover, that, like, very little of it is American?

CHUNG: None.

MALONE: None?

WONG: Oh, none?

CHUNG: In some countries, none. Oh, some countries, none. Yes.

MALONE: That does seem like a problem for American wheat.

CHUNG: Sure. It was.

WONG: Roy had stumbled on a big, Australia-sized problem. Basically, every mill Roy talked to back then in the 1970s was using Australian wheat.

MALONE: It made total sense. American wheat was, like, fine when the U.S. government was basically giving it away. But why buy it when Australian wheat was right there, right, like, next to Southeast Asia? The United States, not right next to Southeast Asia.

CHUNG: If you say you are shipping U.S. wheat over, at that time, I would safely say it's at least a minimum of six weeks shipping time.

MALONE: (Laughter).

CHUNG: Australia is one week. What's the advantage of using your wheat over somebody's wheat?

WONG: Now, we talk about wheat as this one thing. But there are a bunch of different kinds of wheat, wheats with different colors, protein levels and water absorptions.

MALONE: Most of the wheat in the U.S., like, you know, the wheat we sing about when we sing, for amber waves of grain - blah, blah, blah. Like, that is red wheat. That's good for bread. However, it is pretty similar to some of the wheat Australia grows. So unfortunately for U.S. wheat farmers and Roy, the wheat America has lots of is functionally-ish the same as the cheaper, much closer wheat in Australia.

WONG: And Roy says the key to breaking through this problem was something called soft white wheat. Soft white wheat is grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest, and it's actually just a tiny portion of what we grow in the United States.

MALONE: But it is special. Like, it is known for baking up particularly flaky and tender, for being great for cookies and crackers. In fact, the Triscuit cracker box once called it the cashmere of wheat.

WONG: And so there's Roy going mill to mill, factory to factory, and he's discovering that people are buying Australian wheat, sure, for their breads and noodles, which it's good for, but also for crackers and cookies.

CHUNG: They think, oh, we kill two birds with one stone because with one wheat, we can make into noodles and we can also make into cookie and cracker.

MALONE: OK.

CHUNG: It's the same class. And then I'm this guy who say, no, it's not the same.

MALONE: You know, when we talk about a market, like, we often think about the buying and selling of stuff, and that is what the politicians and the diplomats, that's what they deal with. They negotiate the trade deals that allow goods to move between countries. But for a market to work, the buyers and sellers need to be informed. They need to know what products they are dealing with, like what one kind of of wheat, for example, can do that another cannot. That's what Roy does. And every country that wants to sell wheat has a version of Roy, somebody who's, like, a little bit of a salesman, a little bit of an information merchant for the emerging wheat markets.

WONG: The technique Roy landed on was a simple taste test. He'd go to a mill or a factory and hand over an American cracker and an Australian cracker, and he'd be like, I want you to tell me what you think.

CHUNG: I want you to tell me the difference when you bite into this cracker. Which one is harder? Which one is melt in the mouth? And then if you know, wow, you know, I didn't know that cracker can be so melt in the mouth.

MALONE: Soft white wheat has become incredibly popular in Southeast Asia, used in things like cookies, cakes, crackers, like, snacky things - so a small corner of the plate but incredibly valuable.

WONG: This is especially true in the Philippines. Over the last decade, the Philippines has grown into the single biggest wheat customer for the United States. Last year, American wheat farmers sent more wheat to the Philippines than any other country in the world.

MALONE: Do you know how many flour mills and bakeries you have visited over your career?

CHUNG: No, I stopped counting. It was...

MALONE: Do you think thousands?

CHUNG: Thousands, sure, but I don't know how many thousands because I stopped counting. And I can safely say that over the years that I worked, I created many markets. I created many big plants (ph) in this part of the world.

MALONE: And Roy's job has shifted a bit at this point. Like, the region obviously knows about American wheat, so now he's out there kind of just tending to these growing markets. Now it's more like flying from country to country, consulting on new product lines, troubleshooting factories, giving workshops.

WONG: For example, Roy teaches a course on the science and technology of baking. And in every class, for over 25 years, there's been a student from Jollibee.

MALONE: The massively popular Filipino fast-food chain that we started this whole episode with.

WONG: I got a 10-piece bucket and just a small spaghetti, no cheese and two Peach Mango Pies and a Pineapple Quencher. I wish we had smell-o-vision.

MALONE: Are you ready to bite this chicken?

WONG: OK.

MALONE: OK. Let's count to three - three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

WONG: Oh, oh.

MALONE: That is crunchy - very crunchy.

WONG: I crunched so hard, my headphones fell off. Hang on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: You know, sitting there in our cars, eating Jolly Spaghettis and Chickenjoys, it is this real full circle moment for U.S. wheat. You know, wheat was this product that the U.S. government was literally giving away across the world. And now here it is being sold back to us in the quintessential American form - fast food. That's seven decades of globalization fried into one little crispy piece of Chickenjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Do you have a story about an international fast-food chain that also teaches us an economics lesson? Well, we would love to hear about that, obviously. We are planetmoney@npr.org. And generally on social media, we are @planetmoney. Today's episode was produced by James Sneed, engineered by Isaac Rodrigues and Josh Newell. It was edited by Meg Cramer with help from Jess Jiang. PLANET MONEY's supervising producer is Alex Goldmark.

WONG: Special thanks to Randy Fortenbery, Nick Cullather and Prabhu Pingali.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong.

MALONE: This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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