Emma Rothchild, "Food Politics," Foreign Affairs, January 1976


There is no doctrine more deceptive than the new idea that food is power.  The doctrine of food as power is deluded for several reasons.  It promises an impossible form of influence.  And it nurtures a false view of what has happened in the food crisis of the 1970’s; of the political consequences of the crisis; of the even more fearsome consequences to come.  The new politics of food has been a specter in the international economic crisis.  To some Americans, the possibility of agricultural power suggested extravagant opportunities.

In the recent crisis, American pre-eminence in food also seemed to offer immediate advantages.  The prospect that the United States might restrict its food exports for political purposes was disputed, hinted, feared.  Food was considered as a means of exerting pressure on the OPEC countries, through a “counter-embargo,” or some form of agricultural export tax.

The political consequences of the food crisis go far beyond the “new politics” of food as power.  The wider issues of American food policy will have enormous consequences for international relations.  Issues of prices, export policy, the role of the free market in determining the future of American agriculture, and how U.S. agricultural policy should change in the new conditions of the world food economy will constitute a continuing politics of food.  The politics of U.S. food exports most concerns the developing countries, although the United States exports food to almost all countries.

No rich country, however, is now as dependent on U.S. food policy as many developing countries have become.  More than 90 developing countries import American food.  The conditions of this commerce have changed since 1972 from aid to trade.  Aid agreements account for less than 15 percent of these exports.  From 1972 to 1975, the value of commercial exports increased from $1.7 billion to $7 billion, while the value of aid-financed exports varied around a level of $1 billion.

The politics of food, now, is a politics of trade, not charity.  There is no economic question where U.S. policies and U.S. relationships have changed more than in agriculture.

In 1972, the food crisis, as much as the oil crisis or the crisis of the international monetary system, was a consequence of changes in the economic policies of nations.  Food shortages had to do with the distribution of food between nations, and not with worldwide scarcity.  Rich countries still imported food throughout the crisis, when poor countries could not afford to import the food they needed.

The international food distribution system is at the heart of the food problem.  And this system is founded on American exports and American policies.  The United States is the only genuinely global exporter.  It sells food in all continents and to some 130 countries.

What has changed, in the 1970’s, is not the pre-eminence of the United States, but its policies.  The world food economy before 1972 was American-centered and American-secured, and agricultural order directed in Kansas City or in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  It was based on the agricultural polices of the U.S. government, much as the international monetary system was based on the dollar.  Until the mid-twentieth century, the only states to depend for long periods of time on imports of basic grain were the most secure of imperial (and naval) powers.  Now weak states depend on lines of supply stretching halfway around the world, and poor states buy food on world markets.  The security of the world food economy depends on the grain reserves owned by the U.S. government, and the U.S. policy of exporting food on favorable credit terms, as part of its foreign aid program.

The American agricultural empire was acquired as if by accident.  The policies were designed to make possible the expansion of American exports and foreign customers came to depend on U.S. food in a market where prices were stable and exports subsidized.  World grain prices now fluctuate wildly.

Two major issues of principle were at the center of the momentous change in U.S. food policy in the early 1970’s.  One set of issues had to do with domestic concerns, and with the role of free enterprise in American agriculture.  Since 1969, the policy of the Nixon and Ford Administrations has been to remove the government from agriculture.  The federal government, according to this policy, should no longer own reserves of commodities and regulate prices, as it has for more than 30 years. 

The other issue in the new agricultural policy had to do with America’s position in the world economy.  U.S. policy, in the early 1970’s, called for a retreat from the arduous costs of world power in economic policy as well as in foreign policies more generally.

The international economic policy of the Nixon and Ford White Houses was obviously often chaotic.  Agricultural policy lurched from one famous futility to the next: the mishandling of the grain sales to the Soviet Union in 1972; the embargo on soybean exports in 1973; the deadly interruptions of U.S. food aid to very poor countries.  Decisions were influenced by the most imminent of electoral concerns.

Reforms in food policies that have occurred since 1972 have been national more than international.  In addition, they have dealt with the concerns of rich countries more than of the developing countries.  The Soviet Union’s grain imports vary greatly from year to year, and have been a cause of instability in world prices.

Many of the rich food-importing countries have changed their own agricultural policies since 1972.  Several of these developed countries intend in the next ten years to reduce their dependence on imported food, and specifically on American grain. These changes of the powerful states look to the future of the world food economy, but they do not greatly alter the situation of the poorer countries, which will compete in that uncertain economy.

As food prices increase and the developing countries spend more cash on imported food, the competitors of the United States devote more effort to market development.  France, and the United States, food exporters, should not be discouraged if markets in developing countries do not appear to promise a rapid increase in profitable demand, and should demand and increase in food aid to developing countries, for the purpose of increasing the dependence of new customers. 

The food-importing developing countries have suffered the most in the disorders since 1972, and will have most at risk in the 1980’s.  Many now see greatly increased political and economic benefits in promoting agricultural development.  They already favor new projects for increasing food production.

The United States will lose some of its comparative advantage in agriculture, both because U.S. agriculture is particularly energy-intensive and because the United States will have less unused land than many poorer countries. 


The political power of the United States as a leading oligopolist of food most obviously concerns countries in the first category.  The ability to provide relief food in periods of shortage or famine will enhance U.S. influence.  The politics of exporting food to very poor countries will involve more than the use of power.  U.S. power is not specific to food.  It is a dependence of the destitute countries on the rich for food, credit, and assistance.  Americans will continue to feel a special responsibility for the needs of the poorest food-importing countries.  Congress has required since late in 1974 that 70% of all U.S. food aid be sent to those countries, which the United Nations designates as “most seriously affected” by the economic crisis. 

Two episodes illustrate the difficulties of humanitarian policy.  First, when U.S. officials pondered the strategic uses of the poor nations in the months after the OPEC oil price increase in Dec 1973.  (starve them in order to get a price drop in oil)  The idea was soon abandoned but only after some damage was done to U.S. principles of humanitarian policy.  The second episode has to do with the origins of the 1974 famine in Bangladesh.  The Bangladesh government, desperately short of foreign exchange, was unable to obtain credit.  Two large sales of American grain companies, for delivery in the autumn, were therefore cancelled.  The U.S. government debate in secret whether or not Bangladesh should receive aid due to its assistance to Cuba earlier in the year.  By the time the assistance got there, it was no longer needed.  This illustrates that in a situation of competitive uncertainty, “food policy” is made not only by governments but also by the private sector, the price mechanism.

Richer developing countries take a large and increasing share of U.S. agricultural exports.  Their economic relations with the United States have changed most, as agricultural trade has become dominated by commerce and not aid.  The demand for food is growing faster in the more prosperous developing countries than in poorer countries, as people eat better and buy more corn to feed their livestock.  The United States has influence over these countries that depend on American food and this influence is commercial in nature.  American influence would become power when the grain available in the world is unexpectedly limited, the United States might be in a position to decide how to allocate scarcity by export controls, or by price increases.  Countries might compete for political priority, or for credit to position themselves on the right side of and interdiction.  The United States will find the opportunity to wield political, economic, or other interests.

The breakdown in the old agricultural system appeared traumatic to many people in developing countries.  Several countries, which buy U.S. food, were in the past large recipients of U.S. food aid.  It is a proud claim of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that these states have grown up to be cash customers for American wheat.  Many countries feel too, that they have neglected their own agricultural development, in part because of the disincentive of subsidized food imports.  There is no doubt that the chaos in food exports contributed to the deterioration in U.S. relations with many developing countries in the early 1970’s.

The resentment that developing countries felt in the crisis in food aid and food prices goes to the political heart of the movement for a “new economic order”: the belief of many countries that the industrialized world, and the United States above all, owes a peculiar debt to developing countries because of its responsibility for building and breaking the old order. 


The OPEC countries are as dependent on imported food as any group of developing countries.  They include some of the least fertile countries, countries that have in the past most neglected agricultural development, and some of the countries most dependent on American grain.  IN the year after the 1973 oil price increases, the 13 OPEC countries bought some five million tons of U.S. grain.  It is the OPEC countries that U.S. officials had most clearly in mind when they hinted in 1974 at using food as a political weapon.  The possibility of a “counter-embargo” in grain has been discussed widely in the United States since the Arab OPEC states’ oil export embargo of 1973.

Many of the oil-exporting countries are able to buy food elsewhere that in the United States.  The Arab OPEC states participating in the oil embargo could well afford to buy the food they need from other suppliers.  This shows that a “counter-embargo” would be most effective, if effective at all, on poorer OPEC countries.

The commercial inhibitions against a political restriction of U.S. food exports are also forceful.  American farm exporters have with notable enterprise developed a $1.7 billion market in the OPEC countries; the oil-exporting countries are of even greater interest to U.S. traders in that their demand for food will continue to grow very fast.  Even the discussion of food embargos in the United States has hurt the prospects of American farmers in this lavish market.  Soon, the OPEC countries will also have the resources to increase their own agricultural production, or to develop new sources of supply.  All the larger OPEC countries now place high priority in their development projects on increasing self-sufficiency in food.

“Food power” is conceivable only in a situation of agricultural transition, where the United States is engaged in retreat from the power it exercised during the 20 years when the world food economy was American-ordered and American-secured.  The politics of food in the next ten years will be a matter not of power but of economic issues, from prices and reserves to export promotion, which have already, since 1972, influenced U.S. relations with developing countries.  And these issues lead back to the principles of free enterprise and retreat from hegemony that has dominated U.S. decisions about world food since the Nixon Administration’s “new agricultural policy.”

Some modern enthusiasts believe that the agricultural reforms of 1969-1976 served to undo 36 years of Rooseveltian misrule.  The history of U.S. agricultural policy in the twentieth century “mirrors a remarkable and continuing determination by farmers to gain some control over market forces.”  U.S. agriculture is very far from any ideal of competitive enterprise.  Agricultural prices are made in markets, for commodities and commodity futures, where large buyers and speculators are pre-eminent.  The five large corporations that sell and ship almost all the grain exported by the U.S. operate under conditions of notable confidentiality, license, and oligopoly. 

There are reasons other than economic efficiency to question whether free agricultural enterprise is in the self-interest of the United States.  A world food market characterized by chaos and crisis is, for example, hardly the best circumstance for the development of agricultural trade.  American farmers have a long-term interest in stimulating exports.  The U.S. has an interest in a stable world, including, presumably, a secure agricultural economy, growing agricultural trade and the solvency of the international banking system with few food-importing countries defaulting on their loans.  The old order in food was in many ways the most extraordinary monument to American power.  It brought the most profound modification in people’s lives of the postwar period: the period of the American Peace, and of American economic dominance. 

The most urgent reform of the agricultural order has to do with emergency assistance for countries facing a food crisis.  In the months of crisis after the World Food Conference in 1974, it was the U.S decision to provide more food as aid to poor countries that prevented greater disaster.  The U.S. government believes that starvation is undesirable, and that catastrophe is not an instrument of international relations.  The provision of the 1976 Foreign Assistance Act requiring that most U.S. food aid must go to the neediest countries is likely to be continued in similar form, is an example of this belief.  This would form the basis of a new and authentically international aid scheme.  However, part of this scheme would be to stabilize prices, which would involve a great amount of domestic political conflict.  A change in the U.S. policy as to agricultural prices is likely to be the necessary condition for success in international efforts to set up a new system of grain reserves.  There is now increasing support, from several farm organizations, and grain corporations, for example, for government intervention to hold reserves. 

            There must, finally, be more open and public consideration of the international consequences of U.S. agricultural policies.  A return to some aspects of the agricultural planning of the 1930’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, is critical.   The U.S. government will decide in the future about prices and reserves, and also about the future orientation of agricultural production.  Will the U.S. government again use export subsidies or even its foreign aid program to nurture new export markets in developing countries.  Policies so paramount should no longer be made under the obscure, unthinking and introspective conditions of 1972 to 1975.

            Hoover’s efforts in the First World War marked the beginning of the modern involvement of American agriculture in the world.  The food crisis of the 1970’s signified a crisis in that involvement.  There is an opportunity, in 1976, to return to Hoover’s hope for an international food policy based on domestic reform: but in the interest, now, of transition from the old American agricultural order.


Summary by Raymond T. Malkowski, Jr.