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The Global Battle of Wheat: Mobilizing Science for Agrarian Development in Fascist Italy (1920s-1940s)

Applicant Sollai Michele
Number 206660
Funding scheme Postdoc.Mobility
Research institution Department of History and Philosophy Science University of Cambridge
Main discipline General history (without pre-and early history)
Start/End 01.05.2022 - 30.04.2024
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Keywords (5)

Wheat; Science; Development; Agriculture; Fascism

Lay Summary (Italian)

Lead
Dal 1925 fino alla caduta del fascismo, l’agricoltura italiana fu caratterizzata in larga misura dalla “Battaglia del Grano”, un piano di sviluppo politico, sociale, ed economico avviato da Mussolini con l’obbiettivo di rendere l’Italia autosufficiente dal punto di vista della produzione del grano, alimento principale della popolazione nazionale.
Lay summary

Oltreché per la sua rilevanza politica e ideologica, la Battaglia del Grano rappresenta un fenomeno cruciale nella storia dell’Italia moderna, poiché inaugurò l’intervento su larga scala dell’expertise scientifica e tecnologica nella struttura e nelle dinamiche dell’agricoltura italiana. Il progetto si concentra in particolar modo su questo aspetto, evidenziando il ruolo fondamentale svolto da scienziati ed esperti quali agronomi, genetisti, fitopatologi, e agro-ecologi nella diffusione di nuove pratiche e tecnologie nel panorama agricolo italiano. Tramite la prospettiva della scienza agraria, il progetto intende dimostrare inoltre la dimensione globale e transnazionale della Battaglia del Grano. In particolar modo, attraverso l’analisi della creazione e della diffusione delle cosiddette “sementi elette” – varietà ibride di grano più performanti rispetto alle varietà tradizionali – il progetto documenta sia le connessioni e l’influenza reciproca tra scienza agraria fascista e internazionale, sia la progressiva popolarità della Battaglia del Grano in quanto modello globale di sviluppo scientifico e tecnologico in campo agrario.

 

Tramite l’utilizzo di molteplici fonti d’archivio inedite e il ricorso a varie metodologie provenienti da più campi storiografici, il progetto consente in tal modo di analizzare in profondità le ramificazioni globali e l’impatto locale della scienza e dello sviluppo agrari nel periodo tra le due guerre.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 15.01.2022

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Abstract

In July 1925, the Italian fascist regime launched the “Battle of Wheat” [Battaglia del grano]. In the words of Mussolini, the goal of the Battle of Wheat was to “free the Italian people from the slavery of foreign bread” (Mussolini 1925). An economic slavery, which bound Italy to import more than one third of its wheat requirements. Wheat flour was needed to make bread and pasta, the two main staples of the Italian population. Wheat farming was widespread throughout Italy, yet it could not keep pace with rising consumption levels since the end of World War I. The Battle of Wheat was meant to reverse this trend. From the mid-1920s until the end of World War II, the diktat of “wheat autarky” - raising internal wheat production to self-sufficiency levels - constituted one of the core ideological and economic tenets of the Italian fascist regime. The Battle of Wheat consisted of a set of economic incentives, social policies, and technological inputs meant to expand and improve Italian wheat farming. It included the large-scale introduction of “superior” (i.e. high-yielding and disease-resistant) cultivars, fertilizers, pesticides, and agricultural mechanization, in conjunction with better land management practices and land reclamation. As such, the Battle of Wheat constituted a vast program of agrarian development that ushered in the mass intervention of agrarian science and expertise into the Italian countryside, in a scale unprecedented not only in Italy, but in all of Europe. In fact, such mobilization of Italian agrarian science soon reverberated outside national boundaries. Upheld by a trans-national network of wheat scientists, the Battle of Wheat became a global model of agrarian development, spanning across authoritarian and liberal regimes, metropoles and colonies. Taking the Battle of Wheat as the main case study, my project will investigate the role of agrarian science in designing the development of Italy’s agriculture and natural environment during fascist rule. How did agrarian scientists such as ecologists, plant pathologists, plant breeders and agronomists conceptualize and act upon the conditions of wheat farming in fascist Italy? And in doing so, how did they relate to the global emergence of wheat science over the first half of the 20th century, from the re-discovery of Mendelian genetics to the onset of the Green Revolution? These issues will be addressed by combining local with global scales of analysis. To this end, the project will follow the multiple trajectories of the wheat seeds at the heart of the Battle of Wheat, focusing on the scientific expertise associated with their local diffusion and global circulation. Taking seeds as “framing devices” will shed new light on the relationship between agrarian experts, farmers, and local environments “on the ground”. In this way, the project will examine the interplay between “modern” technological inputs and customary farming techniques, as well as the close interaction between human practices of development and environmental factors such as climates, soils, and plant diseases. Moreover, the project will delve into how the issues emerging from the introduction, reception, and adaptation of new wheat cultivars at the local level are connected with the trans-national circulation of ideas, practices, and technologies about wheat breeding and the fight against wheat diseases. Drawing on a multitude of hitherto unexplored archival materials, the project will allow to present the Battle of Wheat as a rich case study for observing the global ramifications and local impacts of agrarian science and development in the inter-war years. Located at the intersection of environmental history, the history of development, and Science & Technology Studies, the project will thus contribute to opening up the history of fascism and fascist science to new frameworks of analysis, beyond narrow geographical and methodological boundaries.
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