Introduction II Knowledge Enrichment Lecture notes

The German example (1870-1914)

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Unified Germany was one of the major powers that faced the dilemma of struggling between autarchy and free trade. The farmers of Germany, many of them tenants of the landed class (Junkers) had to compete against the major exporters of wheat such as the United States, Canada, and Russia. In order to feed the rapidly-increasing urban population, Germany had had to import food stuff from abroad, only to be opposed by the Junkers who were essentially the ruling class, due to a clash in interests. The increase in the urban population and the import of food were however, inevitable in face of industrialization and its sustenance. Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, in an attempt to ease the pressure from the Junkers, introduced the concept of import tariff over grain in order to simultaneously appeal to the German farmers and the Junkers.

This policy prolonged and maintained the price of food in German cities at a high level, further serving as a major source of discontent between local urban dwellers and industrial workers. To their dismay, Germany’s peculiar political structure (the three-tier election system of the Diet allowed the Junkers to dominate the Reichstag) stifled any potential change to the policies. As a result, attempts to dismantle the tariff barriers failed and food prices remained high. A vicious cycle subsequently emerged: Germany found it more and more difficult to feed the working population through its own resources, but resistance against further attempts to abolish the tariff system intensified due to fears of foreign competition.

  1. Food and the world wars

3.1 Germany

Germany’s inability to feed its population caused much problem to its political and military leaders during the First World War. Although the country possessed a formidable army and a respectable navy, its ability to sustain in the long war was severely handicapped by its food shortage. The British Empire, a major opponent of Germany, on the other hand, was able to draw almost unlimited resources, manpower, and food stuff from different parts of the world through trading or from its colonies. Effective blockade was nevertheless successfully imposed by the British against Germany and this practically severed German overseas trade.

The British blockade remained unaffected despite interruption attempts from the German Navy in 1916. Finally in 1917, the dire food problem of Germany led to the outbreak of famine, also known as the ‘Turnip Winter’ where 750,000 Germans died of malnutrition during that particular year and the years that followed. The shortage of food partly explains the German defeat in 1918, further giving light to the subsequent outbreak of revolution that ended the war and turned Germany into a Republic in 1919. It should nevertheless be known that the Germans similarly tried to cut foreign food supply off the British Isles through an unrestricted submarine campaign, yet the British ultimately came up with effective measures like the convoy system.
The debate between autarchy and free trade persisted even after the termination of the First World War. Its influence continued to transform Germany, leading to the emergence of the Nazi regime to a certain extent. The landed interest, little affected by the war, supported the Nazi programme partly due to its proposed trade and agricultural policies.
Soon after the Nazi Party took power in 1933, the Reich Food Corporation was formed, imposing total state control over food production. Achieving self-sufficiency in food evolved to be one of Germany’s major political and economic goals, serving as another platform for Hitler’s aggression against Europe. Moreover, the problem of food shortage in Nazi Germany, closely related to Nazi ideologies regarding race and land (the so-called Living Space, Lebensraum), gave rise to plans of turning the European portion of Russia and Ukraine into the bread-basket of the German ‘folk,’ such as the Generalplan Ost of 1940 (It was the so-called Master Plan East which was a secret Nazi German Plan for the colonization of Central and eastern Europe. This sheds some light on the unprecedented cruelty of the invading Germans against the Jews and Slavs in Russia, Poland, and elsewhere in eastern Europe.
3.2 Japan

Shortly after the Meiji Modernization commenced in 1868, Japan rapidly evolved into a highly industrial and urbanized society. For one, the Japanese diet witnessed transformations, and the demand for food increased: rice consumption rose by 25% from the 1890s to 1914 due to population increase and an improvement in living standards. Furthermore, the Japanese had become so reliant on animals for protein that by the time Emperor Meiji died in 1912, Japan was already depending on its colonies, Korea and Taiwan, for extra food.
As the emergence of Rice Riots during the late 1910s and early 1920s demonstrated, the problem of food was yet to be solved. Similar to the case in Germany, the problem of food eventually turned out to be one of the strongest arguments put forth by the advocates of an aggressive foreign policy during the 1920s and 1930s. After the occupation of Manchuria, the Japanese Government subsequently introduced the ‘Plan for the Settlement of One Million Households over Twenty Years,’ ostensibly to turn Manchuria into a major source of food stuff for Japan as well as an outlet for Japanese surplus population.
3.3 Italy

Anxiety over self-sufficiency of food and resources similarly worked in facilitating the Fascist regime to popularity in Italy. Benito Mussolini, leader of Fascist Italy, understood the problem of food as carrying the capacity of a ‘battlefield’ where a superiority of the Fascist ideology could be better demonstrated. This led to a series of government-directed movements such as the Battle for Grain in the 1920s.

3.4 Meals of soldiers in the Second World War

The disparity of resources between the Axis and Allied camps was rather profound during the Second World War. A simple comparison of food packages issued to soldiers, as well as the availability of food between the civilians of the Axis and the Allied countries already reveals a lot about the outcome of the war. However, it should be noted that despite the fact that relative abundance was enjoyed by some Allied powers, especially the United States, famine remained among the major causes of death in countries like China, India and the Soviet Union during the course of the war. The great famines in Henan (China) and Punjab (India) resulted in millions of deaths; notably, such famines partly resulted from Allied priority in feeding its soldiers and its inability to coordinate an effective food distribution.
3.5 Allied attempts to coordinate food distribution

As early as in 1942, a Combined Food Board was established to coordinate the distribution with the participation of the British Empire and the United States. Although a failure, the ad hoc body served as an inspiration to other international organizations responsible for food issues established after 1945.
3.6 Attempts at increasing food production

Allied attempts at increasing food production during the course of the war should not be neglected. In particular, Britain introduced scientific ways to improve field yields, seeking alternative ways to better the ways in which the British could consume their food more effectively. Nutrition science subsequently rose in importance.

  1. Globalisation of food after 1945: the economic side

4.1 Socio-economic development after 1945

By the end of the Second World War, places like western Europe, North America, and some parts of Asia enjoyed a prolonged period of relative peace and stability. Thus, post-war economic development, industrialization and urbanization went hand in hand with population increase that resulted from the post-WWII baby boom. Subsequently, rapid economic development in the 1960s led to an increase in wealth and transformations in lifestyle and dietary habits.

Secondly, multinational food companies re-emerged, or in some cases, continued operation after the Second World War. A number of them were able to dominate the production, processing, transport, as well as distribution of one or more kinds of food stuff. These companies also expanded their influence to underdeveloped countries for the purpose of tapping new resources and markets. Apart from food producers, the post-WWII period further witnessed the emergence of international fast food chains. Significantly, fast food chains would immensely shape the diet of the generations that followed, propagating a fast food culture and stimulating capitalist modernity in America.
4.2 Technological innovations

Also known as the Second Agricultural Revolution, the post-Second World War period could be associated with the concept of agro-chemistry, in particular the use of chemical fertilizers. Such technology was first adopted in industrialized countries like Europe and North America, their use later spread around the world. The need to produce more food during the war, complemented by wartime breakthroughs in science provided a solid platform for the development of fertilizers and pesticides. Notably, health implications from overusing such chemicals were not fully known then. Apart from the aforementioned, technologies concerning refrigeration, transport, packaging, and improving breeds like hybrids witnessed similar developments.
4.3 The problem of distribution

From an economic perspective, the problem of distribution remained acute during the post-1945 period. On the one hand, obesity emerged as a widespread problem in developed countries as the United States, further enhanced by the rise of the fast food culture. Even developing countries like China were unable to escape the question of obesity as food consumption per capita phenomenally increased from the 1970s onwards. On the other hand, famines claimed the lives of millions around the world, especially in underdeveloped countries in Africa and Asia. For instance, it had been recorded that millions of Chinese died of famine in China between 1958 and 1961 as a result of uneven distribution, natural disasters, ill-conceived policies and political chaos.

  1. Globalisation of Food after 1945: the political side

5.1 World food situation in 1945

By 1945, the world food situation could be described as precarious. The total amount of food available to the world was 12% less than the amount available before the war. In a number of countries, people ate less than half the proportion of what they had before 1939; in Europe, total food production dropped to 36% its pre-war level. Relatively affluent countries like Holland and Belgium similarly witnessed near-famine from 1944-1945. In eastern Europe, the situation was worse: Germany, having suffered from Allied bombing and Soviet occupation, could not offer more than 1,000 calories to each urban dweller per day. In some parts of the country, people were losing one pound of weight each day during the 1946 famine. The Soviet Union saw at least 2 million deaths from famine and malnutrition, especially in face of its devastated agricultural production from German invasion between 1941 and 1944. In besieged cities like Stalingrad and Leningrad, incidents of cannibalism had been recorded. Even in victorious countries like Britain, the Government had been pushed to introduce the rationing system in 1945.
The situation in Asia was equally bad. Before the war ended, famine had already claimed innumerable lives in China, Korea, Java, India, and Vietnam. In China, 30 million suffered from under-nourishment in 1946; in Tokyo alone, 100,000 Japanese either starved to death or died from malnourishment within three months after the end of the war.
In comparison, North America was relatively affluent after the war ended. People in general were able to eat better, both in proportion and in quality due to wartime production expansion. The problem for the food producers in North America, in turn, was falling prices resulting from over-production. In other words, the inequality of food distribution was unprecedented in the years after the Second World War.
5.2 Food as weapon in the Cold War

During the Cold War (1945-1989), food was seen by the two rivalling camps as a potent political weapon. Soon after its outbreak, the opposing sides introduced respective economic aids to European countries with the intention of winning partners over to their camps.

To the capitalist camp, affluence was employed as a weapon to undermine Soviet claims to a more advanced system. In the 1950s-1960s, Hong Kong served as a battlefield for a propaganda war between the two camps where food was a prominent feature. The United States sent off a considerable number of food aid packages to Hong Kong. It is worth remarking that the packages consisted mostly of American products shipped by American cargo ships. According to a National Security Council paper in 1960, one of America’s goals was to maintain ‘economic, social and political conditions in Hong Kong that will continue to contrast favourably with conditions in communist China.’ Thus, between 1958 and 1961, the United States government set aside an annual 4 million USD (30,400,000 USD in 2011) for food aid to Hong Kong. In contrast, 1 million USD came to be spent on the refugee program and 0.8m on information program.
Similarly, the Chinese communists incessantly provided food and drinking water to Hong Kong for the purpose of earning foreign exchange. During the 1967 Riot, anti-British slogans were painted on train carriages carrying food to Hong Kong; food supply, however, never actually ceased.
5.3 Attempts at international cooperation (by the United Nations)

The first international attempt at food-related cooperation took place long before the Second World War terminated. The International Institute of Agriculture, with its headquarters in Rome, was established in 1905. However, the organisation was not backed by any government and merely operated as a platform for information exchange and statistical research.
The idea of setting up a permanent organisation to deal with global food problems was inspired by the formation of the Combined Food Board during the Second World War. Subsequently, the United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture (1943) (also known as the Hot Spring Conference) was held, ultimately coming up with an agreement that the new organisation was not only to be concerned with food aid but also the coordination of food supply among nations. Moreover, the concept of healthy feeding was put forth.
In 1945, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) was formed as a subordinate organisation under the United Nations. British nutritionist John Boyd Orr, director-general of the FAO, proposed the idea of a post-war world Food Board that could ‘reconfigure the world’s political economy by organizing it scientifically, according to human need, not profit.’ Unfortunately, the proposition was rejected by other participating countries, particularly by the State Department of the United States.
Between 1945 and 2010, the following programmes and organisations were established by the United Nations in supplement to the Food and Agricultural Organisation:

  • World Food Programme, 1961

  • World Food Conference, 1974

  • World Food Council, 1974-1993

  • World Summit on Food Security, 1996, 2002, 2009

In addition, a number of attempts at international cooperation were launched by other organisations all over the world:

  • World Trade organization, 1993

  • Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (World Bank), 2010

  • European Food Safety Authority (European Union)

The aforementioned international organisations have been responsible for a variety of tasks that include: food aid to countries in famine, the establishment of unified food safety and measurement standards, the monitoring of food safety, the monitoring and recommendation of measures in regulating the market when necessary, the removal of trade barriers such as protective tariffs and the enhancement of technological development by encouraging joint research and dissemination of advanced technologies.
5.4 The limitations behind the success of cooperation

Though effective, international cooperation over food issues after 1945 nevertheless faced several limitations which that can be explained by a number of reasons. First, the context of the Cold War complicated the process of international cooperation, by making it highly politicised and confrontational. In dealing with food problems, tensions were running high at different levels and between different organisations. This sufficiently demonstrates that the food issue has never been a simple problem of demand and supply; tensions are bound to exist between governments, between governments, private corporations and interest groups, between different departments of every government, state and individual, and at times, between corporations and individuals. In other words, food problem was always closely associated with the ramifications of international relations and the internal politics of every country.
An apt example that demonstrates the difficulty of international cooperation over the food problem is the so-called ‘Bare Shelf’ of the United States Government. Towards the end of the war, the US military and the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) persistently urged the US government to lay aside food stuff sufficient to feed liberated countries, as well as the defeated Germany. However, the US Department of Agriculture failed to fulfil the proposition; instead, it adopted the ‘Bare Shelf’ policy for the purpose of clearing up food storage and reducing production so as to protect US farming interests from potential overproduction and price reduction. Meanwhile, food administrators encouraged the production and consumption of meat in replacement of sufficient grain production for the starving European population. Overall, such policies resulted in the United States’ incompetence at providing enough grain for the European countries in 1946; instead, countries like Britain and Canada had to divert their food reserve to the needy European countries.
5.4.1 The politics of food aid

The food problem in some countries could hardly be solved by solely receiving food aid. Some countries, notably those in Africa, became over-reliant on food aid from developed countries. The free food aid resulted in a lack of incentive to increase productivity and improve sustainability. In addition, corrupt officials often appropriated the food aid and instead of distributing it equally, they sold it to the population. Thus, there exists a certain degree of difficulty for international organisations in ensuring that food aid properly arrives in the hands of people who need assistance.
5.4.2 Technological and economic obstacles

A couple of other obstacles to international food cooperation are the commercial interest of countries, bottleneck limits in production, speculation and trade barriers, new technologies being resisted by vested interest, as well as the rise and fall of oil price which commonly drives food prices up and down. For instance, the increase in oil price during the 1970s resulted in a sharp rise in food price and multiple food crises in Africa. Eventually, the World Food Conference had to be held in 1974.

  1. Effects of the globalisation of food in societies after 1945

6.1 The prices of increased productivity

In general, the industrialisation of food production in the last two centuries has resulted in food wastage which will have a long-lasting impact on the environment. To begin with, rain forests, otherwise known as the lungs of Mother Earth, have been logged to make space for food production. In another example, precious water resources are being appropriated for irrigation; over-cultivation constantly leads to soil erosion which in turn, decreases the availability of land for agriculture. Furthermore, transformations in dietary habits from wheat and rice to meat have driven farmers to set aside land for the production of fodder, ultimately reducing the efficiency of food production. Over-cultivation and over-production have nevertheless induced a loss of biodiversity: the modern fishing industry continues to threaten the extinction of particular fish species. Apart from this, the production and transportation of food across continents in an industrial scale has left behind considerable carbon footprints detrimental to our environment.
6.2 The problem of obesity

Developed countries have so far paid the price of growing health-care costs due to the over-consumption of food. Obesity and closely related diseases like diabetes have been present in industrialised countries for decades, but are now quickly emerging as a source of trouble for rapidly developing countries like China. Medical complications that come hand in hand with obesity and other related diseases, for instance, the increase in preventable government expenditure on health care services, are a financial drain.
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