A two-way examination of research on food

by Morton Sosland
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Even as government-funded research centered on food-related matters faces cuts due to budgetary constraints, the food industry itself appears to be devoting increasing attention to studies aimed at addressing a wide range of issues. Food companies of all types and sizes have announced a variety of research-driven initiatives that represent a broader commitment to discoveries about food than has been seen in a long time, if ever before. At one extreme are new research centers created in the hope of producing advances in the potential of food for improving health and well-being. This work seeks specific answers by modifying food to end obesity and ease neurological and cardiovascular disorders. On a more basic level, research centers have been established with the goal of identifying new flavors and textures to increase the appeal of specific foods as well as cost savings. And then there is research looking for new uses for traditional products as well as ways of modifying products and ingredients to expand at home and food service business.

Even reviving family meal eating has been assigned a project.
All of this is happening on a different side of food science from the work examining food’s role as a weapon, not just in warfare but as a powerful political influence. Often conducted in research facilities hidden from public view, this work becomes obvious when it is applied as a psychological force. This was the case as recently as the battle for control of Libya, where the forces of the slain dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, tried to weaken opposition by cutting off the food supplies coming to rebels. In a reversal of roles, the last days of Colonel Qaddafi were colored by shortages of food and water. Indeed, the Arab Spring’s protest movements across these countries reflected dissatisfaction with food availability in nations like Libya and Egypt.

Thanks to “The Taste of War,” a book authored by Lizzie Collingham and published last year, the food industry has a path to understanding food’s importance in military conflicts. Her emphasis is on World War II, and the manner in which this conflict made food an instrument of war in a dramatic shift from its longtime role as essential to maintaining a well-fed army. Having enough food to maintain populations supporting the war effort suddenly loomed large, making food a fighting weapon rather than simply a problem that arose as the result of war. She describes the strikingly different approaches that Hitler and Stalin followed in attempting to maintain food supplies, and how both resulted in death by starvation for millions. Seizing huge blocks of farmland to bolster domestic food supplies became the policy pursued by Hitler in invading Poland, by Mussolini in taking over Ethiopia and by Japan in its attack on Manchuria. Ms. Collingham concludes that having enough food became itself a purpose of war as well as one of the main reasons World War II started.

It was not until the war was under way that “famine by design” became a strategy on both sides of this conflict. So far as the food-related legacy of the war is concerned, this book cites attention to the nutrition of food as one result. She contends that the problem of rising obesity has its roots in famine forced on millions of people. More than anything else, the war at the middle of the 20th century stirred national food security issues, even though she rightly contends that government efforts to provide a secure food supply often prompt actions like closing borders to trade and rationing that seem to assure shortages.

Much present-day research, especially efforts that seek to improve public acceptance of foods while offering nutritional advances, has roots in the nightmare of scarcity in times of conflict. As long as research is conducted with these multiple possibilities in mind, benefits will surely exceed anything that might emerge in an unimaginable future.
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