What can an analysis of food policy prior to, during and immediately after World War II contribute to our understanding of food issues in the 21st century? As it turns out, a great deal. Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011) not only provides rich historical detail about a topic receiving limited attention in prior accounts of the war; it also offers a lens through which critical aspects of today’s global food system are brought into sharp focus. Along the way it helps us answer key questions about who eats well in our world, who does not, and why. And it exposes in stark relief the disturbing potential for a new conflict over food to reemerge in the coming decades.
There is obviously a vast literature that explores the origins and conduct of the Second World War. We are familiar with the ambitions of the Axis countries to become Great Powers as well as the fascist ideology that promoted and attempted to justify the inhumane treatment of peoples throughout the world, whether in German-occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, in the nation of Ethiopia, or within Manchuria in China. The role that competition over access to the world’s resources played in the lead-up to war is also well- documented. Collingham does not dismiss the importance of such explanations; in fact, she provides many vivid and disturbing details of the horrors that grew out of these factors. What she does that is so valuable is to provide another dimension to this analysis that is especially revealing.