In 1951 officers of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gathered in Rome to contemplate their founders’ mission: to serve the decolonizing nations of the world by helping peasant farmers maintain control over their own land. That same year, the organization had relocated away from its previous headquarters in Washington, D.C.—a move away from the halls of power but toward the emerging power centers of New Delhi, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, Jakarta, and Manila—and symbolically, at least, toward Mexico City, Santiago, Antigua, and Lima.

Eight years earlier, international delegates had assembled in Hot Springs, Virginia, to spell out the work of the future United Nations. Meanwhile British, American, and Indian soldiers clashed with the soldiers of the Third Reich, whose land settlement policies were based on the philosophy of lebensraum, or “living space”—the conceit that a growing German population would require more land, the subjugation of other peoples, and the creation of farms in colonized territory where German peasants would settle. Meanwhile, millions of Bengalis were starving in the latest of the famines that had plagued the subcontinent under British rule; up to three million perished in 1943.

F.D.R had recently declared a worldwide “freedom from want” as an American value, and the designers of the United Nations would try to imagine a world of plenty, where Indians ate as well as Britons—even if it meant that Britons would be required to make sacrifices. Indeed, advocates of redistribution at the UN’s FAO would labor to create something unique in history to sustain that vision: an international organization largely concerned with land, invested with an unprecedented power to advise governments around the world and with the authority to construct grand plans for centering land as a resource for the world’s people. Embodying this remarkable mandate, the FAO was given the Latin motto Fiat Panis, or “Let There Be Bread.”

Administrators at the FAO based their strategy on the historical arc of peasant struggles for territory

What made such a radical conversation possible? Many of the delegates who congregated in the 1943 FAO Quebec conferences had participated in a wide-ranging wartime debate in Britain about hunger, agriculture, racism, and opportunity. Social scientists such as Doreen Warriner argued that political stability would emerge only when empires agreed to surrender their land. Warriner and her colleagues would spend the years immediately after the war pressing for a global government of land; the FAO enshrined their ideas. At the time, China’s Communist Party had already begun an era of land redistribution focused on creating family farms; Guatemala and Egypt would soon pass land redistribution schemes modeled on those in Ireland, whereby landlords would be compensated for land turned over to peasant farmers.

Because of the United Nations’ obligation to support member nations in the developing world, administrators at the FAO based their strategy on the historical arc of peasant struggles for territory, not on a commitment to capitalism, economic growth, or some other abstraction (even while those abstractions sometimes entered discussions about the consequences of land redistribution). Later, the Washington Consensus would dominate world affairs, but in 1951, the conversation that mattered most in many parts of the world was taking shape in Rome.

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To many midcentury observers, world events since 1881—from the rent strikes and related events in Ireland, India, and Britain, and their corollaries in Mexico, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe—had united the distant corners of the decaying British Empire into a single march for justice. There had been peasant uprisings in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, where peasant-led rebellions turned over haciendas—the colonial ranches of the aristocracy—to indigenous peoples and rural laborers; in the Philippines, where the United States presided over a land redistribution to break up ancient estates and create small plots of land; in Soviet Russia, where the state seized large and medium-scale farms in the name of the peasant; and in Taiwan, Japan, and countless other nations.

Land redistribution was a central focus of peasant movements in Ireland, India, and other places where racial underclasses had been denied the possibility of owning land for centuries, laboring as underpaid, uneducated tenants or sharecroppers. Wherever these movements erupted into organized revolutions, redistribution of land was a primary demand. If decolonization succeeded, the descendants of enslaved persons and sharecroppers and tenants might thus become landowners in their own right.

Administrators at the FAO came to believe that their institution might guide the coming revolution in land toward the most efficient and rational outcome possible. In their view, the FAO would house a new kind of bureaucracy—an international government charged with challenging the traditional elites of the world. Civil servants and social scientists would become the servants of peasant revolution.

When the FAO’s Edmundo Flores visited farmers in a remote village in the Bolivian Andes in 1952, he found peasants there quoting the slogans associated with Mexico: “Viva Zapata! Land and Freedom! Death to the landlords!” At first, Flores thought the slogans were evidence of Marxism, but eventually, he discovered another answer: tiny movie houses had started up in the villages, and among the favorite films were Hollywood reels that retold the story of the Mexican Revolution. Cast in the role of Emiliano Zapata, Marlon Brando took up the cause of the native rights that should have belonged to peasants, battling evil landlords along the way.

Just as newspapers and ballads had spread stories of the Irish land reform to North America and Australia a generation before, cinema conveyed the legend of the Mexican Revolution across Latin America. Whether amplified by film, oral tradition, or literature, the slogan “Land to the Tiller” soon spread not only to Bolivia but even to Honduras, Colombia, and Peru.

Civil servants and social scientists would become the servants of peasant revolution.

Carried on this wave, global redistribution of land seemed inevitable to many observers in the 1940s and ’50s. As movies began broadcasting the message of a right to occupation around the globe, Flores concluded that the fictionalized depictions of Mexico’s revolutionary peasants, male and female alike, “convey more of a message than, say, the Communist Manifesto ever has.”

Flores’s observation was particularly cutting, in retrospect, as it voiced his conviction that land reform was a force that worked in opposition to communism: peasants would not need to create a dictatorship of the proletariat, he suggested, if democratic movements were able to redistribute land and thereby create a fairer economy.

Flores was not alone in this observation. A broad consensus in North America and Europe held that land redistribution was inevitable; the only question was whether the program executed would be capitalist or communist in nature. British social scientists, steeped in the history of enclosure of common land, were soon called upon to develop a theoretical framework encompassing the postcolonial condition and to construct an international institution charged with fighting hunger in the developing world. Many of the theories emphasized the reality and inevitability of peasant revolution around the globe.

The elaboration of these theories owes a great deal to Warriner. The daughter of a Staffordshire farmer and granddaughter of an exiled Irish radical, Warriner earned her PhD specializing in the transitions in Eastern Europe, the site of both peaceful and violent land turnovers. She started teaching at the University of London, but in 1938, as news of Chamberlain’s accommodation of Hitler reached London, she turned down a prestigious fellowship in the United States and instead flew to Prague, where she had researched peasant agriculture eight years before. There, she began to learn the stories—social democratic leaders being sent to concentration camps, Jewish families disappearing—that had not yet reached the West. As the war raged on, Warriner organized camps and trains for a thousand working-class anti-Nazi dissenters and Jewish families and coordinated safe transport for them to Canada, where they could settle as farmers on small plots of land.

Returning home after the war, Warriner joined forces with Paul Lamartine Yates, author of a study of food production in six European nations. One of Yates’s first appointments was as a junior member of Seebohm Rowntree’s committee on British agriculture, which published a 1938 report revealing a systematic relationship between poverty, underconsumption of food, and ill health, and prescribed a mandate for the state to direct food production and remedy the conditions of workers.

A decade later found Yates writing about agriculture with Warriner, then joining other experts on nutrition to found the FAO. Warriner and Yates felt certain that the major challenge ahead was in transforming the plight of impoverished peasants around the world: a population that, like the peasants of Eastern Europe, had only undergone a “very recent emancipation from serfdom.”

Warriner argued that small farms could offer a sustainable life for political and ethnic refugees like those she had helped in Prague. She also believed that land reform more generally offered a path to democratic prosperity: in her many books on the topic, Warriner regularly invoked the family farm systems of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as evidence that land settlement created stable democracies.

To Warriner and Yates, the rise of authoritarian governments represented a clear threat to these objectives. Reflecting on recent clashes in Eastern Europe, they warned that land redistribution, while ameliorating the economic burden of the peasants, might be used to impose authoritarian rule—as it had in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Such initiatives could thus facilitate the rise of “military cliques and semi-fascist dictatorships.”

What was needed, then, was not merely land redistribution but also economic independence, such that farmers could actively engage and defend a democracy that reflected the range of their interests. To avoid authoritarian control, new states would need to create opportunity rapidly, and this required economic planning—especially the coordination of prices and markets and programs to teach peasants about technology. Warriner and Yates recommended a system of cooperatives and shared technology supporting small, economically independent farmers who could then make up their own minds about politics. Such plans would provide new states with comprehensive economic programs for both cities and towns, ensuring the “economic conditions under which the peasants can greatly increase their outputs,” and that both urban and rural workers could look for “a steadily rising level of incomes.”

Warriner and Yates theorized that planned economies were most vital for rural workers due to the nature of the agricultural cycle. Peasants, they argued, were economically vulnerable in an industrial economy where workers with wage increases were likely to spend more of their money on manufactured goods than on food. Modern states could cushion peasants from the inherent vulnerability of agricultural enterprise, which, unlike manufacturing, couldn’t be planned several months or even years in advance and couldn’t be easily scaled to adjust to new information from the market.

State programs could ameliorate human misery, they argued, and governments should adopt measures to protect agricultural workers; such sound engagements, they reasoned, could inoculate peasants against the political promises offered by would-be despots. They wrote: “Man is beginning to realize that he can exercise control. . . . Peasants in their economic lives are still at the mercy of the rest of the community which exploits them, but this state of affairs need not continue for ever.” Coordinated expenditure and management by a centralized bureaucratic state could enable a new economy—one marked by “economic conditions under which the peasants can greatly increase their output,” even supplying a “steadily rising level of incomes.”

Economic planning thus lay at the root of a general revolution to increase prosperity and economic security while ensuring a path to democracy in which peasants would not be easily wooed by authoritarian forces. According to Warriner and Yates, by setting farmers up with individual plots of soil, land redistribution would be a key element of economic planning in most nations. In a later book published in 1955, Warriner laid out a plan premised on recent UN reports that, in her words, “put forward the contention that land reform . . . must be regarded as a condition of economic development.” Soon after describing these schemes in print, Warriner and Yates would each have opportunities to realize them. While Warriner went on to advise a variety of postcolonial nations, Yates would help to found the FAO, working alongside John Boyd Orr, another veteran of the British crusade against hunger.

Unlike Yates the activist, Orr was a professor turned adviser to the state. Experiments published by Orr in 1927 proved that Scottish schoolchildren given milk grew stronger than their peers. He was the veteran of a campaign to remedy the condition of Britain’s working classes by providing cheap access to food. His 1936 report, Food, Health, and Income, argued for an increased role by the state in the nutrition of the poor. In the decade that followed, Europe was wracked by food shortages, and Orr’s work offered a model for European policy.

In 1945, Orr appeared in Quebec at the FAO conference as an unofficial adviser. Despite having been excluded from the official British delegation, Orr electrified the conference with a sermon in which he condemned political inaction about nutrition in vivid terms. “The people wanted bread,” said Orr, “but were given statistics.” The next year, Orr was selected as the FAO’s first director general.

Orr, like Yates and Warriner, believed that state planning could level human disparities. Orr had already spent a decade publishing books that envisioned a top-down food board for Britain that would collect information on where food was grown and where it could be sold and then advise farmers about what to grow. At the FAO, Orr would style the same dreams on a global scale. Orr’s agenda was threefold: establishing the FAO as an independent, policymaking institution capable of recommending global strategies; combating the worst consequences of poverty by supporting a worldwide food program (a “World Food Plan”); and challenging the long-term consequences of racism in Europe’s former colonies.

Orr’s view of how a coordinating institution could support society was, if anything, even grander than that of Warriner and Yates. He wished to level the short divide not merely between rich and poor or rural and urban, but also between different races and different experiences of empire.

The primary sacrifice was for whites to give up their claim to land.

Addressing the fate of former colonies in the postwar world, Orr recast a phrase that Kipling had used in a very different sense when complaining of the “White Man’s Burden” to educate and civilize the “backward” races of the world through violence and conquest. Orr’s 1953 book The White Man’s Dilemma warned of the widening gulf between the “haves” and “have-nots” would “end in holocaust” unless a “world authority” provided “environmental conditions which would enable [the poor] to attain their full inherited capacity for physical and mental ability.” Such a world authority, he argued, would effectively eliminate all “difference between the ability of men of different races.”

Orr’s prophecy bears quoting at length:

The natives of Asia, Africa, and Latin America would become the equals of the white man, and as these continents became industrialized the Europeans and their descendants, the Americans, would lose the control of the world they gained in their 300 years of conquest from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. This, then, is the white man’s dilemma. He can attempt by force to maintain military and economic supremacy . . . the final outcome of which will be the downfall of Western civilization. On the other hand, he can . . . join the human family and use his present industrial supremacy to develop the resources of the earth to put an end to hunger and poverty, with resulting world-wide economic prosperity.

Worldwide flourishing, Orr suggested, would require hard choices by rich nations and individuals; only visionary sacrifice could support the infrastructure required to prevent violent confrontations for generations to come. He coyly alluded to sacrifices in his book, but as the work of others at the FAO made clear, the primary sacrifice was for whites to give up their claim to land.

Although largely forgotten today, Orr’s work embodied an impressive optimism regarding the potential of social science and international governance to remedy long-term inequalities on a global scale. For his advocacy of a “world food plan” and his work to create the FAO, Orr received the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize.

Working alongside Yates and Orr was Frank Lidgett McDougall, a rugged Australian settler turned seasoned diplomat. In his youth, McDougall claimed, he cleared eighty acres to plant fruit trees before joining the Australian agricultural lobby in London as it negotiated for preferential trade terms with Britain and the outside world. He considered himself an “artist at propaganda,” and he was described by his contemporaries as a master statesman, skilled at concealing his agenda while he brought others on board.

If Orr and Yates were civil servants with an activist streak, McDougall’s credentials were capitalistic and pragmatic. They were all inspired by discoveries in the relatively young science of nutrition, but where Orr and Yates saw opportunities for state reform to relieve the poor, for McDougall, the discovery of undernourished populations and concerned governments in Europe meant promising new markets for Australian produce. McDougall also understood firsthand how a former colony might struggle for fair terms of trade. He offered a capitalist perspective that overlapped with an anticolonial one: What opportunities, McDougall asked, might science open up for former colonies under a new world order?

What opportunities might science open up for former colonies under a new world order?

Despite the FAO’s founders’ anti-racism and anticolonialism, we should not lose sight of the founders’ own racial privilege. As white men who were British citizens or subjects, they enjoyed privileges that many of their colonial counterparts did not. Yet Orr’s anti-racism was distinctly ahead of its time, standing in direct contrast to the prognostications of contemporaries such as John Russell—the former director of Britain’s Rothamsted Experimental Station, the country’s major center for agricultural research. Orr was an exception in the husk of British Empire, where the legacy of racial injustice was still abundantly clear to anyone who looked.

For the most part, British administrators, still clinging to empire, were terrified of the conversations happening elsewhere. In 1952, Kenya’s British administrators learned of native movements to reclaim the traditional landholdings on which the Kikuyu people were now nominally “squatters” on white-owned farms. They rounded up the Kikuyu into concentration camps, tortured and massacred them, and summarily suppressed evidence of the atrocities. In South Africa, Australia, the United States and many other countries, white-run governments tyrannized natives and minorities; land redistribution remained a subject beyond debate.

Despite such resistance, Yates, Orr, and McDougall formed the lobby at the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia, in 1943—well before the United Nations officially formed—that persuaded the gathered nations of the benefits of possible cooperation around agriculture. Their privilege was matched with opportunism. A year later McDougall proposed “an international agency for food and agriculture” as a UN activity that would be bold in intent, but realistic in terms of diplomacy—“not too controversial.” Further diplomacy gained the agency a budget—almost one-third of which was supported by the United States—a headquarters, a staff, and a growing mandate to solve the potential troubles of nutrition, population, and agriculture associated with the developing world.

The FAO would become the global institutional pivot of ideas about land redistribution and postcolonial emancipation. It was not as powerful as some would have liked, but it was a government all the same, charged with reconfiguring the map of inequality around the world.

When former colonies declared their independence from Europe, many were largely composed of impoverished agrarian populations still reeling from decades of endemic famines and droughts. The chief weapon of extortion under most European empires had been colonial landholding, and most former colonies wanted to undo the consolidation of landownership in the hands of a few wealthy absentees; a majority of the population tilled the soil in abject poverty so that Europeans abroad could enjoy the profits of colonized labor. Entire infrastructures concentrated on exporting food from starving nations rather than feeding poor farmers when droughts hit. Some nations proposed a suite of reforms. For instance, India insisted that any new international agreements must work to reverse the sins of empire.

Postcolonial nations themselves would demand the FAO’s commitment to land redistribution.

In 1943, an interim committee discussed the possibility of exporting food from rich nations to famished ones as part of the FAO agenda. The debate reflected some representatives’ concern for protecting markets for rich nations. But relieving Bengal’s famine remained a subject of earnest attention, as did the issue of fair representation for poorer nations. And, as the United Nations took form, an ideal of fairness—one nation, one vote—gave the former colonies voice. The program for managing the world supply of food did not simply fall to the developed world. Much of the FAO’s agenda would be shaped by the former colonies, and the postcolonial nations themselves would demand the FAO’s commitment to land redistribution.

As early as 1948, the FAO’s second director general, Norris Dodd, embarked on a tour of India where he met with Indian economists whose ideas would be interwoven into policy at the FAO.  In particular, their research helped direct FAO policy objectives toward minimizing developing world debt and prioritizing economic development on terms dictated by the developing world. FAO agents would thus digest and reformulate a strategy for land redistribution around the globe. Deferring to member nations in the postcolonial and developing world, the FAO’s agenda focused not simply on food markets but also on justice.

In 1951, Dodd gave a speech to the Federal Council of Churches.  He compared slogans that had defined Germany and Poland as territories for the “master race” to the United States’ own anti-immigrant campaign, “America for Americans.”  Dodd proposed a “uniting” values system instead, summed up by the title of his speech: “The Earth for Man.” Dodd’s slogan signaled the FAO’s commitment to combating hunger, disease, and poverty—the same values that President Truman had defined as central to U.S. ambitions in his “Point Four” speech three years earlier. Dodd recast Truman’s fight against poverty in materialist and ecological terms: “Can we use the resources of the earth well enough so that all people everywhere can have, or see clear hope for, a decent life?” The FAO’s mission, Dodd indicated, was to encourage the nations of the world to deploy knowledge, technology, and policy to prevent exclusion and exploitation.

Redistributive justice remained at the forefront of the FAO’s agenda for at least its first ten years. In 1953, Dodd addressed a conference of the leaders of young persons’ movements, who gathered in Rome under the aegis of the World Assembly of Youth. Dodd put the issue of land distribution front and center. “In many countries the land-owning, land-holding, land-renting laws and customs do not provide the farmer with security of tenure on his land,” he declared. Dodd articulated a plan for land redistribution that involved rethinking landlord and tenant relationships. “These laws and customs cannot very well be changed—even slowly and carefully as they should be, in accord with the traditions of the country—unless people also come to understand and agree with the changes that should be made,” he explained.

The land redistribution agenda shaped the general organization of the FAO down to the directives handed to individual agents. A major 1951 FAO report had laid out a roadmap for global economic development and food production, targeting land monopoly as a subject for reform: both holdings that were too vast—and therefore wasteful—and holdings too small for subsistence agriculture should be targeted and reformed. Both represented a residue of colonialism, according to the report, that needed reform. Single-owner proprietors must be supported by an array of state provisions of institutional infrastructure, including secure land tenure policies, freedom from eviction, the titling of owned land, and credit at reasonable rates. The FAO would target the redistribution of land from large landholders to smallholders as the most effective policy for states to pursue economic growth while developing a political environment suited to democracy.

The 1951 report also directly responded to the demands of developing nations. Here the FAO explicitly pledged to undertake the creation of regional centers in Brazil, Thailand, and Iraq to concentrate on land problems. To accommodate an expanding list of client states pursuing land redistribution and related programs, the FAO would have to form new administrative branches. Later that same year, as it relocated from Washington to Rome, it received funding for a new technical wing, the Agriculture Division, which encompassed several “branches”: Animal Production, Plant Production, Land and Water Use, Rural Welfare, and Agricultural Institutions and Services.

Throughout most of the 1950s and ’60s, the FAO’s agenda aligned with policy ideas in Britain and the United States. American policies and land redistribution programs, for example, in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Latin America were compatible with ideas at the FAO, and reflected the earlier ideas of Warriner, Yates, Orr, and Dodd. Throughout these decades, the U.S. Department of State sponsored international conferences on agriculture stressing land redistribution as a key component of international development. In 1961, in sympathy with Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, Latin American countries vowed, in the Declaration of Punta del Este, to encourage “programs of comprehensive agrarian reform.” This easy alignment, however, was not destined to last. The United States began to pursue a fundamentally different vision of rural development—one aligned more with elite interests than with the ideas emerging in the developing world.

Moreover, the FAO’s effectiveness would be limited by the organization’s ability to navigate a tension among the United Nations’ member nations. While the leading powers of Europe and America relinquished a measure of control to the votes of newly independent nations, they remained chary of giving up control over sovereignty issues. Like the League of Nations before it, the United Nations’ role was defined, therefore, as an “advisory” body. No UN branches had the power to compel. The FAO, therefore, was charged with merely advising member nations in developing their own ministries of agriculture and their own agricultural policies.

By the 1970s, the Rome Consensus had forged a fully developed ideology for a global economy in which the small farmers of the developing world could flourish. The tenets of this consensus required the nations of the world to recognize the importance of protecting the beneficiaries of land reform from local elites, the potential power of cooperative networks to supply small farmers with technology and infrastructure, and the value of participatory democracy. This utopian set of ideas informed a growing bureaucracy of agrarian experts, surveyors, cartographers, and policy analysts whose influence, even while it fluctuated in the United States, was aligned both with Rome and with a broadening swath of decolonizing nations abroad.

Indeed, the ideas themselves emerged partly from the dreams of Europe and partly from the disgust of peasants around the world—sick with the poverty bequeathed them by empire, they demanded equal access to the earth. It emerged partly also from the worldviews of social scientists, many directly connected to the fight against Nazi Germany, who looked to small farms as a source of sustainable economies.

The hopes for a global revolution in land redistribution rested, at the international level, on one primary institutional strategy: the work of the United Nations would provide a forum for solving the problems of developing nations. With the help of this institution, a new elite, charged with Weberian ideas of duty and rationalization, would challenge the traditional power of empire or race. Bureaucracy was thus key to the envisioned revolution. Effective land redistribution would depend on the agitation of civil servants, government experts, and popular leaders who understood themselves to be servants of peasant and popular rebellions against oppression. A new elite of educated social scientists would lead the way toward peasant liberation around the world.

But it was not Warriner and the FAO’s theory of decolonization that dominated in Washington, where a slate of Ivy League professors began to preach a “modernization” theory that framed economic growth as the ultimate virtue. In the Washington Consensus that emerged later, far away from Rome, global hopes about the development of poorer counties were increasingly articulated not in terms of justice but rather in terms of consumption. As Wolfgang Sachs observed of the outlook for development in 1992, “Across the world hopes for the future are fixed on the rich man’s patterns of production and consumption.”

Many began to attack land redistribution as a form of communism in disguise.

Many individuals would look to markets, rather than states, as an avenue for implementing social policy. The era saw a massive counterreaction against modern bureaucracy that grew out of a broader conservative movement against the state. Neoliberals attacked the “red tape” of modern government. They argued that market exchanges represented a more rational approach to modeling human society, as distinct from the oppressive and irrational management of the state. A new era was marked by government from the “private” sphere, characterized by the expanding presence of NGOs in every initiative connected to development and poverty. As prominent voices in the United States began to target the spread of communism worldwide, many began to attack land redistribution as a form of communism in disguise. With the withdrawal of U.S. support, the brave visions that had emerged at the FAO began to founder.

However we may assess the United Nations, many of us now share a view of history in which the theft of land from indigenous people is central to the transformations of capitalism and states over the last several hundred years. Such an understanding may drive us to wonder about possible remedies for the mass evictions of the past and further possible displacements in the future. Could coordinated land redistribution programs or rent controls today make homes for those displaced by flood, fire, drought, and famine?

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Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights, published in 2022 by Yale University Press.