Is there such a thing as “world heritage” when it comes to food? We are outraged when an intolerant regime destroys artifacts, buildings, or other objects of cultural significance in their own countries, and we take steps to encourage them to realize their global importance. After all, these are the common heritage of humankind. But what about food? Are the bananas of Honduras, the coconuts of the Philippines, and the rice of east Asia ours to manage, for the good of all?
Should a global, United Nations agency have the power to dictate crop growing and food preservation practices to individual countries?
After World War II, so many people faced starvation that new UN agencies tried to find ways of forestalling disaster, and they raised this very question. The experts working for these agencies differed dramatically on the subject, and some felt strongly that the earth, like individual countries, had to be managed centrally. After all, it worked during World War II. Who doubted the necessity of rationing? Governments decided where the sources of food were, and where to send them. Wasn’t the same approach workable for the entire globe?
I’ve recently published an essay in Global Environment that explores this controversy, and it pits American experts against British ones. It’s called “The Vulnerability of Nations.” I think the essay is especially useful because most of the action predates the Marshall Plan, which understandably has obscured most of the food-related activities in that period. One take-away is that wartime experiences had a dramatic effect on how scientists approached the problem of global food security. Topics include health, nutrition, and the vulnerability of plants and humans to ecological devastation. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that key ideas about global food security, not to mention environmental management, were born in this tumultuous period.
Although many of the ideas in the essay were stimulated by researching my book Arming Mother Nature, the essay isn’t drawn from the book. So any feedback would be appreciated, especially as I develop these ideas later.
I’ve posted a link to the essay here. You can also check out the other essays in the same issue of Global Environment. Some of them, like mine, came out of a conference on the environmental history of World War II held in Helsinki, Finland, in September 2012.