Regulating food after WW2

This post is an excerpt / adaptation from “A sustainable world food economy” by Harriet Friedmann, in the book “Political Ecology Global and Local” edited by Roger Keil, David V.J. Bell, Peter Penz and Leeza Fawcett. It also includes some info on GATT from Trinity College Dublin: Exploring links between EU agricultural policy and world poverty.

In Great Britain during the second world war, advocacy for public intervention to prevent hunger and ensure minimal diets led to maternal and infant food programmes and canteens for workers as part of the war effort.

In the United States, organised farm lobbies gained support for farmers in the form of government purchases to support prices. The result was the creation of government-owned food surpluses which were distributed to the poor via food stamps.

The world at the end of World War II was open to different ways of organising food and agriculture, but they did not include unregulated markets. These had collapsed during the 1930s leaving unsaleable surpluses of grain and widespread hunger. The problems of hunger and farm surpluses, both linked to violent market fluctuations, precluded a return to free trade.

In general however, free trade was seen as an important mechanism for world peace and a crucial factor in the restoration of the world economy after the war. At the famous Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) was set up to reduce the barriers to international trade.

Attempts were made to create a “World Food Board”, an international, multilateral organisation to regulate food production and food trade. However the “World Food Board” idea was opposed by the US.

The US government was offering above market prices to its farmers, and disposing of surplus food through food stamps distributed to the poor at home, and food aid sent abroad, first to Europe and Japan and then to the Third World. Without import controls, all the world’s grain, sugar, and other supported crops would have flowed to the US Commodity Credit Corporation. The US clung to its right to restrict agricultural trade, and amended the GATT to exclude agricultural products.

The response of other nations was to regulate agriculture just as intensely as the US. As a result, agriculture became the most intensely regulated economic sector in most Western economies.

This situation changed somewhat in 1995, with the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at the Uruguay round of the GATT.