Atomic Food for Peace?

Atomic Food for Peace?—Materializing a Radiant Idea in a Transnational Network of Research and Development

As a title for her project, “Atomic Food for Peace” is Karin Zachmann's invention. As a concept, however, it clearly existed in the mid-1950s. The idea of “atomic food for peace” (AFFP) was introduced via three programs that formed basic pillars of US post-World War II policy towards war-ravaged Europe and beyond. These were: first, the Atoms for Peace campaign, inaugurated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 in front of the United Nations; second, the Food for Peace program, established by Congress’s Public Law 480 in 1954; and, third, the American productivity mission, which was one of the most important components of the Marshall Plan. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative formed the most decisive ingredient for the AFFP concept.

The Eisenhower administration promised to an international audience (and in an international arena) access to fissionable material as well as financial and intellectual support to develop the peaceful uses of atomic science while it sought secretly to keep control of fissionable material and nuclear research. The US’s eager nuclear customers were anxious to initiate programs for the atom’s peaceful use. Agriculture and food provided an area of application least under the suspicion of military intent. As the US representatives at the first Geneva Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in 1955 invited the international community to share its knowledge and resources for nuclear research, one of the conference topics was nuclear radiation in food and agriculture. Some 85 papers focused at this topic. European protagonists of food irradiation remembered these numerous presentations as a kind of an awakening experience for their getting involved with research on atomic food.

In July 1954, about half a year after Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations, the American Congress passed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act (Public Law 480) that established a basic framework for the American food diplomacy and became known as the Food for Peace (FFP) program.

Just as the Atoms for Peace program promised to secure world peace by offering technical and financial assistance for research on the peaceful use of atomic power, Food for Peace stressed in much the same way the missionary task of the United States to better the world. When Food for Peace turned into the Freedom from Hunger campaign—and thus shifted from Europe to the developing world—the idea of atomic food (food irradiation) was sold as a solution to the third world food problem. Within Europe, the concept of AFFP spread via Project No. 396 that was initiated and financed by the European Productivity Agency (EPA). The latter worked as a mediator for the US politics of productivity during the 1950s. It grew out of the United States Technical Assistance and Productivity Programme, which was launched as one of the first Marshall Plan initiatives in 1948. As a semi-autonomous organization within the framework of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) the EPA aimed to transfer American techniques, know-how and ideas for promoting productivity to Western European countries. The EPA existed from 1953 to 1961, and during the whole period it received two thirds of its total budget from the US. According to the allocation of money, there were two fields that had top priority: business management and agriculture. Project No. 396—entitled “Application of Atomic Science in Agriculture and Food”—sought to inspire and foster research on the use of isotopes and irradiation in agriculture and food for tracer work, mutation induction, and crop and food preservation in Western Europe.

Thus, the concept of atomic food for peace had three dimensions. It symbolized the peaceful atom. It fostered food diplomacy. And it promised to modernize western European agriculture and its food chain. The radiant idea materialized quickly in terms of national research facilities, expensive research programs, and a closely connected collaborative, as well as competitive, transnational research network. National governments poured a lot of research monies into the new field, and a whole range of international organizations, some new and some pre-existing, busied themselves to establish study groups, working commissions, or expert committees on nuclear agriculture and food irradiation. These organizations acted on the European level, but they also engaged in worldwide research networks. Just as these research activities gained momentum and resulted in respectable structures and institutions, however, national legislation (first in the US and then elsewhere) prohibited food irradiation and issued restrictive statutes governing radiation protection. Furthermore, the ups and downs of the nuclear euphoria heavily influenced the public perception of “atomic food.” After paying a lot of attention to and pouring some money in research on food irradiation, private industry quickly lost interest when it became clear that it would take much longer to serve up an atomic meal. And yet, the national, international, and transnational research activities, facilities, and networks still unfolded and blossomed on both sides of the Atlantic. At a conference on the “Acceptance, Control of and Trade in Irradiated Food,” which was jointly organized by the FAO, WHO, and IAEA and held in Geneva in December 1988, one of the participants cleverly stated: “Food irradiation is the best investigated, best regulated and least applied food process [on Earth].”

What kept the concept of atomic food alive, especially when it was soon terribly obvious that there were plenty of other technologies much better suited to help accomplish the third agricultural revolution? It was the hypothesis of this project that it was the three-dimensional extension of the atomic food idea that got a range of actors to exploit the idea as a vehicle for their own agendas in the Cold War reality of the mid-1950s and early-1960s. In doing so, they materialized the concept in a soundly built transnational infrastructure of research and development, which gained momentum and proved resistant against several attempts to dismantle it. Following these actors and institutions, this project will explore how this infrastructure emerged and gained strength albeit it was based on a technology whose promise—controlling the organic via radiation—was highly controversial almost from the outset (and has remained so ever since). Furthermore, the project aimed to contribute to the scholarly debate on Americanization and on Europeanization as it aims at disclosing the transatlantic and the inner-European flows of knowledge and technology.