Proposal preview

The Struggle for Food: From Malthusian Tension to GMO, and Beyond (19th-21st Centuries)

By 1800, Europe faced the challenge of producing enough basic food to avoid Malthusian tension. As high transport costs and protectionist barriers were limiting international trade in foodstuffs, local harvest failures led to price increases and, at times, crises and famines. Population pressure gave rise to several improvements in the agricultural sector: better techniques, tools, rotation systems, new crops and better selection of high-quality seeds and plants. In addition, from the 1860s onwards, substantial changes occurred: the transport revolution and the huge growth in international trade and globalisation; technical and scientific innovation in food processing, conservation and packaging; the shift from hand-made to industrial food production, which tended to make increased use of scientific knowledge, especially chemistry. Military necessities also played a role in the origins of many innovations in the food industry: e.g., world-wide colonial wars and WWI. An expanding trade network connected many areas in Western Europe, the US, the Americas, Africa and Asia, in a complex core-periphery order.

In the post-World War II period, when globalisation restarted, the international food system was generally linked to mass production and was based on cheap commodities. Further integration of European markets, through the European Economic Community, was underway, while an increasing number of large multinationals expanded their supply chains and sales markets internationally. New changes began following the breakdown of the Bretton Wood system, particularly from the 1980s onwards: from the mid-1990s a new global food order seems to have emerged, based on restructured international agro-food supply chains, the growing concentration of processing and markets, increasing retail power, and an emerging interest in freshness and naturalness of food.

However, this significant and long transformation did not lead to an equal distribution of food, in terms of both the balance of vitamins, proteins and minerals, as well as the sufficiency of calorie intake. Malnutrition or hunger was a reality for a significant part of 19th century and the first half of 20th century working classes and peasants in Europe, and continued to be tangible in many areas of the globe, so that the history of the 20th century still was, for millions of people, a history of hunger.

This panel aims to reexamine the history of food production, processing and trade from a global perspective, focusing on the effective role of scientific and practical innovation in the availability of food on a large scale. The primary goal of the panel is to allow scholars to consider whether, and to what extent, the food industry and innovation contributed to defeating the struggle for food in some parts of the globe, while many others, by contrast, remained under ‘Malthusian tension’. How did global waves influence the process? Is the increasing movement of goods and technology beneficial to all economies? Are industry and science enough to address the struggle for food? Or do people need many more interventions – e.g. political economy, income reinforcement or redistribution, trade agreements, institutions, support to local producers – to overcome the problem?

Organizer(s)

  • Silvia A. Conca Messina 'La Statale' University of Milan silvia.conca@unimi.it Italy

Session members

  • Franco Amatori, Bocconi University
  • Irina Potkina, Institute of Russian History RAS
  • Dominique Barjot, Paris-Sorbonne University
  • Christiane Cheneaux, Paris-Sorbonne University
  • Yves Tesson , Paris-Sorbonne University
  • Silvia A. Conca Messina, ‘La Statale’ University of Milan
  • Rita D'Errico, Roma Tre University
  • Claudio Besana, Catholic University of Milan
  • Phillip Dehne, St. Joseph's College, New York
  • Benjamin Davison, University of Virginia
  • Hildete de Moraes Vodopives, Paris-Sorbonne University

Discussant(s)

Papers

Panel abstract

This panel aims to reexamine the history of food production, processing and trade from a wide perspective, focusing on the effective role of scientific and practical innovation in the availability of food on a large scale. The primary goal of the panel is to allow scholars to consider whether, and to what extent, the food industry and innovation contributed to defeating the struggle for food in some parts of the globe, while many others, by contrast, remained under ‘Malthusian tension’. How did global waves influence the process? Is the increasing movement of goods and technology beneficial to all economies? Are industry and science enough to address the struggle for food? Or do people need many more interventions – e.g. political economy, income reinforcement or redistribution, trade agreements, institutions, support to local producers - to overcome the problem?

1st half

Alternative Ways to Combat Famine in the Early 20th century

Franco Amatori

Around 1850 agricultural products benefited greatly with the advent of new systems for communications and transportation that utilized scientific applications. This progress provided the prerequisites essential for large-scale production; the first big food firms (Swift, Quaker Oats, Heinz) appeared around 1880. The industry’s rapid growth affected American consumers; by 1929 most regularly purchased foods produced in factories. Still, consumers weren’t entirely convinced. In the early 20th century, the Department of Agriculture’s Pure Food and Drug Act and the Inspection Act became operative. They were effective in dealing with issues of food contamination in America. And yet in the 1920s (when the US food problem seemed to be resolved) the Soviet scholar, Alexander Chayanov, proposed a theory emphasizing the role of small farms. The point of equilibrium for the economic unit of peasants could be found in the ideas of self-exploitation. Was this a possible alternative to mass food production?

Around 1850 agricultural products benefited greatly with the advent of new systems for communications and transportation that utilized scientific applications. This progress provided the prerequisites essential for large-scale production; the first big food firms (Swift, Quaker Oats, Heinz) appeared around 1880. The industry’s rapid growth affected American consumers; by 1929 most regularly purchased foods produced in factories. Still, consumers weren’t entirely convinced. In the early 20th century, the Department of Agriculture’s Pure Food and Drug Act and the Inspection Act became operative. They were effective in dealing with issues of food contamination in America. And yet in the 1920s (when the US food problem seemed to be resolved) the Soviet scholar, Alexander Chayanov, proposed a theory emphasizing the role of small farms. The point of equilibrium for the economic unit of peasants could be found in the ideas of self-exploitation. Was this a possible alternative to mass food production?

The Formation of Food Industry in the Russian Empire at the Turn of the 20th Century

Irina Potkina

Emergence of a French Agribusiness Giant: Danone (1966-2016)

Dominique Barjot

Danone Group is today one of the world leaders of the food industry. Consequently, this French group is in position “to bring health through food for the greatest number”. The Danone’s success cannot be understood without the important role played by agriculture in the French model of development. Indeed, France generated a powerful food industry. Founded in 1919, Danone became a leading group between 1967 and 1972. From then on, it became possible to reach, between 1980 and 2000, the world leadership. Able to overcome difficult times in 2001-2004, then 2008-2009, the Danone Group was able of finding, in 2006-2007, then from 2010, the way of a regular growth, thanks to its adaptation the mass consumption, its Americanization, the success of its marketing, the strength of its distribution network, its advanced social policy, its positioning as corporate citizen and, above all, the priority gave to innovation and research development investments.

Danone Group is today one of the world leaders of the food industry. Consequently, this French group is in position “to bring health through food for the greatest number”. The Danone’s success cannot be understood without the important role played by agriculture in the French model of development. Indeed, France generated a powerful food industry. Founded in 1919, Danone became a leading group between 1967 and 1972. From then on, it became possible to reach, between 1980 and 2000, the world leadership. Able to overcome difficult times in 2001-2004, then 2008-2009, the Danone Group was able of finding, in 2006-2007, then from 2010, the way of a regular growth, thanks to its adaptation the mass consumption, its Americanization, the success of its marketing, the strength of its distribution network, its advanced social policy, its positioning as corporate citizen and, above all, the priority gave to innovation and research development investments.

The nature of the famine during the crisis of 1816-1817 and the «king law» in the Seine department (XIXth Century)

Christiane Cheneaux-Berthelot

This article will aim at pointing out the Malthusian tension. Bad storage more than bad crops mainly caused the emergence of the famine. The consumers’access to grains largely depended on the price policy. The origin of the shortage of grains and the cause of the important rise of the prices in 1816-17 have to be reconsidered in the light of an economic phenomenon called ‘The King Law’ (XVIIIth century). The analysis of the crisis of 1816-1817 show the « Malthusian tension » on wheat on the border of the food supplying area of Paris. Unefficient techniques for storing and transporting grains were the two main causes of this precarious situation. The example of the merchant-millers of Saint-Denis (near Paris) who were in the forefront of progress in the transformation of grain into flour, seems to be quite meaningful to explain how the Reserve of Paris supplied the capital during the...

This article will aim at pointing out the Malthusian tension. Bad storage more than bad crops mainly caused the emergence of the famine. The consumers’access to grains largely depended on the price policy. The origin of the shortage of grains and the cause of the important rise of the prices in 1816-17 have to be reconsidered in the light of an economic phenomenon called ‘The King Law’ (XVIIIth century). The analysis of the crisis of 1816-1817 show the « Malthusian tension » on wheat on the border of the food supplying area of Paris. Unefficient techniques for storing and transporting grains were the two main causes of this precarious situation. The example of the merchant-millers of Saint-Denis (near Paris) who were in the forefront of progress in the transformation of grain into flour, seems to be quite meaningful to explain how the Reserve of Paris supplied the capital during the crisis.

Champagne, between terroir and industry, the difficult balance between quantity and quality (1660-2018)

Yves Tesson

This paper will show how, according to the different periods, champagne wines have privileged an approach focused on viticulture or on oenology, and how this wavering has changed the champagne identity: « natural » wine produced on a defined “terroir”, or an industrial wine « fabricated ». This wavering was accompanied by a reflection during all the different periods about the devices that would allow combining quality and quantity, meeting the still growing demand and keeping an image of scarcity and of luxury. We will see that the improvements of cellar work and, therefore, of industry, have allowed the first quantity and qualitative progresses during the nineteenth century, whereas the viticultural practices revolution was able to meet the needs of the second wave of champagne democratization during the second half of the twentieth century. If the production growth was not dangerous for quality, it could have provoked a standardization of...

This paper will show how, according to the different periods, champagne wines have privileged an approach focused on viticulture or on oenology, and how this wavering has changed the champagne identity: « natural » wine produced on a defined “terroir”, or an industrial wine « fabricated ». This wavering was accompanied by a reflection during all the different periods about the devices that would allow combining quality and quantity, meeting the still growing demand and keeping an image of scarcity and of luxury. We will see that the improvements of cellar work and, therefore, of industry, have allowed the first quantity and qualitative progresses during the nineteenth century, whereas the viticultural practices revolution was able to meet the needs of the second wave of champagne democratization during the second half of the twentieth century. If the production growth was not dangerous for quality, it could have provoked a standardization of taste.

2nd half

The Italian Canning Industry in the 19th and 20th centuries

Silvia A. Conca Messina, Rita d’Errico, Claudio Besana

The food preservation industry (canned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish) mostly contributed to the increase of the availability of food on a large scale and its development had many implications for the economy of the time. In Italy, new opportunities for growth became available for entrepreneurs, who had previously restricted their production and distribution to local markets. The canning industry shaped the agricultural landscape of many regions. It needed and encouraged mechanization, scientific research and new technological processes in packaging and storage systems, which in turn drove up the demand for new materials. Moreover, canned food was relatively cheap, and its growing availability to the working classes was closely linked to social and cultural changes, which involved mass urbanization, the growth of the role of women in industrializing areas and the increase of migration flows overseas and within Europe. The contribution will present some reflections on the food preservation industry...

The food preservation industry (canned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish) mostly contributed to the increase of the availability of food on a large scale and its development had many implications for the economy of the time. In Italy, new opportunities for growth became available for entrepreneurs, who had previously restricted their production and distribution to local markets. The canning industry shaped the agricultural landscape of many regions. It needed and encouraged mechanization, scientific research and new technological processes in packaging and storage systems, which in turn drove up the demand for new materials. Moreover, canned food was relatively cheap, and its growing availability to the working classes was closely linked to social and cultural changes, which involved mass urbanization, the growth of the role of women in industrializing areas and the increase of migration flows overseas and within Europe. The contribution will present some reflections on the food preservation industry in Italy from the 19th century up to the mid-20th century, exploring its evolution in production, markets and consumption.

Feeding hungry Europe after the First World War: American food, British transportation, German gold

Phillip Dehne

This paper describes the efforts to feed destitute Europeans in the wake of the destruction of the First World War. Although since 1919 Herbert Hoover and the American Food Administration have garnered much credit for gathering the food needed by destitute Europeans, the complexity of the wartime global food trade meant that other factors were equally important. These include Britain’s ability to shift ships under its control to needed trades, and French demands that German gold be saved for reparations rather than spent on food purchases. Such concerns interacted with the modified operation of the Allied wartime blockade during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. This paper describes the workings in Paris of the Supreme Economic Council, an oft-criticized interallied body created during the conference, and suggests that the SEC deserves credit for enabling the Allies to bridge their differences and feed Germany. In the SEC, this paper uncovers the...

This paper describes the efforts to feed destitute Europeans in the wake of the destruction of the First World War. Although since 1919 Herbert Hoover and the American Food Administration have garnered much credit for gathering the food needed by destitute Europeans, the complexity of the wartime global food trade meant that other factors were equally important. These include Britain’s ability to shift ships under its control to needed trades, and French demands that German gold be saved for reparations rather than spent on food purchases. Such concerns interacted with the modified operation of the Allied wartime blockade during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. This paper describes the workings in Paris of the Supreme Economic Council, an oft-criticized interallied body created during the conference, and suggests that the SEC deserves credit for enabling the Allies to bridge their differences and feed Germany. In the SEC, this paper uncovers the roots of interwar economic internationalism.

On the Hoof: The Beef Economy and Agricultural Planning in Cold War America

Benjamin Davison

After the Second World War, officials in the United States government designated several crops as “strategic,” and enacted programs to ensure farmers grew those items –corn, wheat, beef, etc– in quantities sufficient to feed a growing population, an expanding military, and foreign aid recipients. The result was the creation of an agro-industrial food system immune to all but the most severe environmental calamity. The beef economy is the best example of this new order. Beginning in the immediate postwar period with the creation of market controls and ending in the 1970s with a wave of legislation meant to fend off “beef shocks,” I show how scientific discovery, marketing innovations, and political decisions ensured cattle could be mass-marketed at low costs to consumers, albeit with important social and environmental consequences.

After the Second World War, officials in the United States government designated several crops as “strategic,” and enacted programs to ensure farmers grew those items –corn, wheat, beef, etc– in quantities sufficient to feed a growing population, an expanding military, and foreign aid recipients. The result was the creation of an agro-industrial food system immune to all but the most severe environmental calamity. The beef economy is the best example of this new order. Beginning in the immediate postwar period with the creation of market controls and ending in the 1970s with a wave of legislation meant to fend off “beef shocks,” I show how scientific discovery, marketing innovations, and political decisions ensured cattle could be mass-marketed at low costs to consumers, albeit with important social and environmental consequences.

Turning Brazil into an agricultural powerhouse with research and planning, 1970-2010

Hildete De Moraes Vodopives

Brazil is the largest country in terms of arable land, with around 264 million hectares. Nevertheless, food production faced a number of constrains, poor productivity and difficult logistics. The agriculture methods imported from the temperate regions of Europe were not adapted to the local climate. The problem escalated by the end of the 1960s, when a supply shortage forced the government to look for solutions. This paper looks into Brazil’s reorganization of the agriculture research system in the 1970s and, in particular, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, (Embrapa). Founded by the Brazilian government in 1973, Embrapa radically changed food production in the country. In a 40-year period, Brazil overcame food shortage and became a leading international player. Embrapa’s agenda made innovation a priority, adapting products and production chain to the peculiarities of the Brazilian climate and soil. More recently, this State controlled organization, turned to international competitiveness and sustainability.

Brazil is the largest country in terms of arable land, with around 264 million hectares. Nevertheless, food production faced a number of constrains, poor productivity and difficult logistics. The agriculture methods imported from the temperate regions of Europe were not adapted to the local climate. The problem escalated by the end of the 1960s, when a supply shortage forced the government to look for solutions. This paper looks into Brazil’s reorganization of the agriculture research system in the 1970s and, in particular, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, (Embrapa). Founded by the Brazilian government in 1973, Embrapa radically changed food production in the country. In a 40-year period, Brazil overcame food shortage and became a leading international player. Embrapa’s agenda made innovation a priority, adapting products and production chain to the peculiarities of the Brazilian climate and soil. More recently, this State controlled organization, turned to international competitiveness and sustainability.