Food and Freedom:
A New World of Plenty?
In 1943, agriculturalists, economists, physicians, and international policy-makers met in Hot Springs, Virginia, a gathering that pre-empted what was to become the first agency of the new United Nations: the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The sinister backdrop was devastating famine in Bengal, in parts of China, and millions hungry in the USSR. A world food crisis was declared, and food and population were immediately linked in grand plans for the postwar era. This manifested as national politics as much as international politics over the turbulent late 1940s.
As the British withdrew from the subcontinent, independent governments in India, Pakistan, and Ceylon put food, population, and agricultural reform at the center of economic and political planning. In civil war China, “Anti-Hunger” became one political rallying point. In Japan, the occupying US forces as well as the new Japanese government puzzled over demographic projections for the country in relation to food production: was a transition to low birth rates and low mortality rates already taking place? And if so, how much food would be needed?
As the World War turned into the Cold War, Europe too was gripped by a postwar food crisis, its solution seen by many to be the core imperative of political and social recovery. John Boyd Orr, Director-General of the new FAO, wrote about his experiences in Prague, Autumn 1946. He reported bad harvests reducing diet to starvation levels, hunger and discontent contributing to the downfall of the government. Meanwhile, the Greek government had just requested the FAO to assist in reconstruction and development, specifically to address the “impoverishment of land” where forests, it was claimed, had been reduced from 60 per cent to 5 per cent of the total area. Like many others, Boyd Orr was watching communist and anti-communist dynamics in Europe very carefully indeed. This was part of his new brief, not least since US initiatives for food aid were quickly escalating with the Marshall Plan, later extending into its Food for Peace program.
Food policy increasingly accompanied US bids for simultaneous world peace and global domination, key to its pursuit of a stable non-communist world future. Actual famine, and fear of the political ramifications of threatened famine, drove vast amounts of research, laboratory, and field development of agricultural sciences. New high-yielding varieties of wheat, maize, and rice, irrigation systems, pesticides, and herbicides became the “green revolution,” a descriptor first used in 1968, but nominating technological developments in place from the 1940s. In Mexico, India, the Philippines and beyond, investments by national governments, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the new World Bank manifested as a doubling of cereal production.
For the hungry, this was about food, while for statesmen it was about food security, the political stability that food both brought and bought. For ecologists and Malthusians, it was unsustainable. Behind the food problem and its accompanying anti-communist politics, was major discussion about global resources and energy needs. What could be produced from the earth, and was it enough?
Food and hunger were also rendered global problems by those whose politics was opposed to the US-led anti-Communism, and in ways that recognized a recent colonial and anti-colonial past as much as the communist and anti-communist present. In other words, while global food, hunger, and population were key elements in the discourse of anti-communism, they were key elements also to postwar anti-colonialism. Brazilian doctor, anti-Malthusian, and sometime chair of the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Executive Council, Josué de Castro argued that the “geography of hunger” matched the global geography of colonial rule.
Yet concern over a lingering colonial geopolitics of hunger was not aligned solely with de Castro-style opposition to Malthusianism. Demographer Sripati Chandrasekhar agreed that “the world’s great areas of endemic hunger are exactly the colonial areas.” Deeply driven by Malthusian conviction, this was also part of his postcolonial critique: “The myth of Western military and social invulnerability has been exploded and the day of Western domination is over.” Thus the geopolitics of a “free world,” a communist world, and a “Third World” that did not have enough to eat, emerged not just as a US-led neo-colonialism but also as a critical geography of the global north and south. The capacity to achieve “freedom from hunger” was related to global calculations of food production, consumption, and distribution, but also more surprisingly it was tied to calls for “freedom to move,” rehearsing interwar conversations for the next new world.
Excerpt from Alison Bashford, Global Population (Columbia University Press, 2016), chapter 10.