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Beyond Victory Gardens: the History of War and Food

January 28, 2013

ImageTVO is airing a fascinating BBC program called Wartime Farm. In it, two archaeologists and an historian run a Southampton farm as they would have done during the Second World War.  This was a volatile time in the history of agriculture, for a number of reasons:

To make up for food imports lost to the German naval blockade, an agricultural revolution took place to double domestic British food production over a few short growing seasons.

This meant an expansion in production of over 6.5 million acres — an area larger than Wales.  Prior to the war, about two thirds of food was imported.  Cheap cereal crops from the United States and Canada made up the bulk of the grains that were consumed in Britain.  This meant that vast volumes of land that had been devoted to raising livestock were transitioned into cereal production.  In the process, thousands of animals were slaughtered, which led to the increasing rarity of certain heritage breeds.

This kind of agricultural transition required extensive government oversight and regulation.  War Acts could tell farmers exactly which fields to plough, and what crops to plant.

Government measures also meant frequent rounds of inspection to ensure that farmers were adhering to government regulations.  Farms were graded according to their output and productivity with an “A,” “B,” or “C”.

Rapid productivity increases led to the adoption and normalization of petroleum-fueled farm equipment, and expansion of the electrical grid in rural areas.  Government also encouraged the use of chemical fertilizers to increase output, and their use skyrocketed.

This led to a swift decline in the use of animal-powered farming techniques, and increased reliance on speedier machines that were more resource intensive and emitted more environmental toxins.  At the same time, however, older equipment was often jury rigged for renewed use, and declining trades like blacksmithing enjoyed renewed interest and reliance.

With food rationing in full effect, wildcrafting and traditional food knowledge also enjoyed a resurgence in rural areas to supplement diets and ensure good nutrition.

What does all of this mean in the face of the current global food security landscape?  Does “relocalising” food production, as the British did, necessitate resorting to use of non-organic methods?  Should governments take more control over our farms in order to ensure domestic self-sufficiency and sustainability?  If so, on what timeline? What powers should they have?  What role might historic skills and trades play in food?  How would all of this affect the relationship between urban and rural landscapes and people?

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