Writing the History of Food Security since 1945

This week’s guest post comes from Dr. Silvia Salvatici, Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Milan. She writes on post-war societies, women refugees, gender and human rights, and European displaced persons in the aftermath of WWII.

Here she introduces some new research on the history of global food security, a topic connected to the Modern & Contemporary History Centre’s upcoming winter roundtable, on 4 December, on the theme “Disentangling the World: The Politics of Autarky after the First World War“.

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Writing the History of Food Security since 1945

DP children in Rosenheim, Germany, 1946, pictured before beginning their evening meal. National Archives and Records Administration, USA, 260-MGG-1062-08. Photo courtesy of Silvia Salvatici.

 

Silvia Salvatici (Università di Milano)

In 1993 the authors of a bibliographic survey conducted for the Institute of Development Studies noted that in the literature “there is no single definition” of food security “but rather a complex weave of inter-related strands, which are adjusted to suit the needs and priority of individual users”[1]. More than twenty years later, this assertion still seems to hold true, in spite of a proliferation of studies that have opened up specific areas of research across a variety of disciplines linking food security to processes of globalization, environmental issues, human rights and individual crisis regions.

The absence of any “single definition” and the presence of different sets of “priorities of individual users” reveal how varied and complex the scholarship is, but they also provide an important opportunity to historians seeking to interpret the measures deployed in the past to combat hunger and malnutrition. The expression “food security” itself, for example, entered current usage in the early nineteen seventies, when the international community was forced to deal with an unexpected dearth of agricultural products on markets and a food crisis afflicting the world’s poorest regions.

In recent years historical studies have been mainly concerned with the meanings attributed to the idea of food security – even if this wasn’t always the expression used – and on how those attributed meanings led to initiatives to alleviate food insecurity. Adopting a variety of perspectives and chronologies, such studies have drawn attention to the many different players and principles involved in determining food needs and the measures aimed at satisfying them.

One of the main streams of scholarship has viewed food security as a matter for global governance and it has looked at the role assumed by international organizations in this regard. In line with this approach, a number of studies have identified the period following the Second World War as a transitional phase, when food security began to be addressed as a separate issue within the United Nations with the setting up of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO, 1945) and later the World Food Programme (WFP, 1961). The end of the Second World War has, thus, come to be seen as the beginning of a period that ushered in contemporary food policies. How these policies subsequently unfolded has itself now become a topic of special interest for scholars.

Accordingly, the articles of a recent special issue of the journal Contemporanea: Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900 devoted to “Food Security in the Contemporary World” all focus on global food policies during the second half of the twentieth century[2]. They analyze the institutional framework represented by the United Nations, the ideology of development, and the role of food security in international relations as connecting threads during the decades that followed the end of the Second World War.

However, like many recent studies, this special issue considers 1945 less as a departure point and more as a pivot that needs to be contextualized within a longer chronology, including both the interwar years and the time after the Second World War. In fact, an important cluster of studies has emphasized how the idea endorsed by the United Nations – that food security was a matter for concerted global governance – was already visible in the earlier activities of the League of Nations.

Studying food security as a matter for global governance allows us to trace extended chronologies and identify new turning points, and to this end the history of international organizations (IOs) can offer useful insights. However, the essays in the special issue of Contemporanea show how the role of international organizations can only be fully grasped by looking closely not just at IOs themselves, but at the many players – national governments, non-state actors, experts – who were involved in designing and implementing measures against hunger and malnutrition. This cluster of studies provides a compelling picture of the current state of the research and it also suggests, we hope, new areas that modern and contemporary historians might begin to explore.

[1] M. Smith, M., J. Pointing, and S. Maxwell, Household Food Security: Concepts and Definitions. An annotated Bibliography, Brighton, Institute of Development Studies, 1993, p. 136.

[2] “Food Security in the Contemporary World”, special issue of Contemporanea. Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900, essays of Heike Wieters, Silvia Inaudi, Elisa Grandi, Ruth Jachertz, Alana Mann https://www.rivisteweb.it/issn/1127-3070

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