In 1937—one year after the Fascist “conquest” of Ethiopia—the Italian East African Empire was on the brink of an economic and food crisis. In order to feed the newborn empire's growing Italian population, Mussolini's regime launched a call for agricultural mobilization meant to rapidly make the empire self-sufficient in wheat, the main staple of the Italian population. This article analyzes the scientific foundations of the program of imperial “wheat autarky” and its materialization during the “wheat campaigns” between 1938 and 1941, particularly focusing on the introduction of and experimentation with hybrid wheat seeds in the Ethiopian highlands. The article shows the key role played by Italian agronomists and plant breeders in the framing and implementation of wheat autarky in the Fascist empire. Contrary to the historical emphasis of Fascist propaganda on the technological and human colonization of Ethiopia by Italian agriculture, the article also argues for the crucial position of indigenous farming within the colonial project of wheat development. Finally, Ethiopia's environments and its nonhuman actors became essential protagonists in the unfolding of these agricultural plans. The article makes the case for viewing wheat rust—a fungal plant disease—as a key component of the evolution and demise of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.
Over the course of the twentieth century, Ethiopia has been often represented as a “breadbasket,” a country potentially capable of providing food not only for its own population but also for that of neighboring and distant countries. During World War II, the Middle East Supply Centre—an Allied agency mainly responsible for the coordination of relief supplies in the Near and Middle East—assigned a key role to Ethiopia in producing cereals to be shipped to those regions via the Red Sea and the Arabian peninsula.1 In the postwar years, US and international technical assistance missions likewise believed that the grain-producing Ethiopian highlands could become a breadbasket supplying wheat, teff, sorghum, and other cereals to the whole country, the Horn of Africa, and beyond.2
The series of famines that struck Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s did not completely efface this representation.3 In the last two decades, Ethiopia's exponential increase in grain production has attracted considerable interest from foreign governments and agribusiness firms, bringing back in a new vein its long-standing image of a breadbasket in the making.4 The Ethiopian government has shown a firm willingness to cling on to this epithet, at least in relation to its domestic market. In particular, wheat has taken a primary role in the country's national economy, in terms of both production and consumption. Ethiopia is currently one of the largest wheat producers in sub-Saharan Africa, but still requires substantial imports to meet growing internal demand for this crop.5 In 2013, Ethiopia's Agricultural Transformation Agency launched the “Wheat Initiative,” a comprehensive program aimed at reaching wheat self-sufficiency.6 At present, such goals figure prominently in the national policy agenda, as the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research announced in March 2021 that the country could achieve wheat self-sufficiency within a few years.7
The representation of Ethiopia as a potential breadbasket and the complementary assertion of wheat self-sufficiency can be analyzed in close correlation with the progressively global dimension of the country's food sector. From this perspective, Ethiopia's involvement in the international economic arena during and after World War II stands as a key event to understand the genealogy of these two claims. Before this, however, the portrayal of the country as a breadbasket was already part of a widespread colonial imaginary developed during the Fascist occupation of Ethiopia (1936–41).
The origins, evolution, materialization, and impact of this imaginary about wheat production in Italian-occupied Ethiopia constitute the main theme of this article. The article analyzes the political, economic, and scientific rationale of the program of “wheat autarky” that since 1937 became one of the main goals of the Fascist regime's colonial policy in Ethiopia. It explores the translation of imperial wheat autarky into practice, retracing the three wheat campaigns prepared and enacted during the years 1938–41. In particular, the article concentrates on the design, performance, and reception of the Fascist regime's main strategy to implement imperial wheat autarky: the introduction of “elite wheat races” (razze elette) in the Ethiopian highlands.
The article draws on new historiographies of colonialism, development, science and technology, and the environment to argue for the project of wheat autarky in Italian-occupied Ethiopia as a peculiar case of colonial development. Italian colonialism—before, during, and after Fascism—rarely figures in the field of colonial development studies, but this article shows how the Italian project of wheat autarky in Ethiopia was closely connected to agrarian development projects in other colonial contexts (i.e., British, French, Belgian, Portuguese, and Dutch).8 Tiago Saraiva's seminal work has recently drawn the attention of historians to the question of agrarian development and scientific expertise for wheat production in Fascist Italy.9 By investigating this question in the context of the colonial occupation of Ethiopia, the article provides new insights on the overall historical trajectory of Fascist policy-making. As the article shows, the colonial project to develop wheat production in Ethiopia had multiple connections and continuities with the project of the “Battle of Wheat” (Battaglia del Grano)—a set of policies launched by Mussolini starting in the mid-1920s in order to achieve domestic wheat self-sufficiency.10 Actors and strategies crucial in the national arena assumed an equally important role in the imperial context, although Ethiopia's wheat campaigns did not merely reiterate the dynamics of the domestic quest for wheat autarky. The article thus shows how the empire turned into a laboratory for the hybridization of metropolitan policies. In the colonial praxis, the imperial Battle of Wheat took experimental forms often at odds with government planning and the conventional makeup of Fascist ideology.
In this context, the article also shows how Italian scientific expertise deeply influenced the framing of the Fascist occupation of Ethiopia. In the mid-1920s, agrarian experts took on an important function in the Fascist structure of metropolitan governance. Albeit antecedent to the rise of Fascism and hardly reducible to a mere expression of Fascist ideology, Italian agrarianism such as that professed by the renowned experts Arrigo Serpieri and Giuseppe Tassinari had a significant impact on the affirmation of Mussolini's regime.11 Beyond its dimension as propaganda, Fascist Italy's Battle of Wheat was largely orchestrated and led by agricultural scientists and technicians. Agrarian experts—for example, agronomists, plant breeders, plant pathologists, and agricultural engineers—became equally if not more important in view of achieving wheat autarky in the Ethiopian context. From this angle, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia stands as an excellent case study to analyze the rising importance of scientific expertise in the colonial world since the late interwar years.
As Joseph Hodge and Helen Tilley have shown, agrarian experts became crucial actors for grounding and directing British agricultural and environmental policy-making in colonial Africa in the late 1930s.12 As in other colonial contexts, agrarian experts rose to prominence in the management of research programs and in the planning of development projects aimed at intensifying agricultural production, preserving environmental resources, and co-opting African farmers.13 As many of these studies have pointed out, although scientific expertise was formed and deployed to serve the political purposes of colonial governments, it should not be understood simply as a tool of colonial power.14 More than a few of the scientists and technicians involved in the program of wheat autarky were enthusiastic Fascists. Still, the article argues that a great deal of their scientific knowledge and technical fieldwork complicated and broadened the narrow boundaries of the ideological and racial foundations of Fascist colonial rule.
In connection with the rising importance of scientific and technical expertise, various studies have emphasized how African farmers and local environments progressively became key elements of colonial agrarian development.15 The article argues that a similar process can be observed in Italian-occupied Ethiopia, despite and beyond the emphasis of Fascist propaganda on the technological and human colonization of the country by Italian farmers. Italian agrarian experts contributed to turning Ethiopian small farming into the keystone of the project of imperial wheat autarky. This did not simply mean that the Italian colonial government had to support and rely on Ethiopian smallholders in order to expand and intensify wheat production. Drawing on a series of scientific field surveys on the crops and techniques of Ethiopia's highland farming, the article shows how Italian agrarian experts valued and integrated these “indigenous” resources as foundational components of the project of imperial wheat autarky. Rather than advocating for a top-down, high-modernist approach, Italian agrarian experts made the case for a hybrid agricultural strategy attuned to what were perceived as the particular agroecological features of wheat farming in the Ethiopian highlands. In this light, the article contributes to historiographical efforts to redress long-standing dichotomous views of Western development projects and indigenous knowledge and technologies.16 Well before the spread of “participatory” development and “appropriate technology” approaches in the 1970s, colonial and international experts could think and act both “small” and “local.”17 The same applied to Italian-occupied Ethiopia. Alongside Fascist modernist planning, a gradualist, research-oriented, small-scale approach deeply influenced the framing of agrarian development in the Ethiopian highlands.
Furthermore, the article emphasizes the centrality of Ethiopia's environments and nonhuman actors in the concrete unfolding of the Fascist regime's colonial agricultural plans. In particular, the article shows how wheat rust—a fungal plant disease common in the Ethiopian highlands—became a crucial factor in the evolution and demise of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. From this perspective, the article speaks to recent historiographical works that have conceptualized the agency and analyzed the historical impact of nonhuman actors such as pests, parasites, and pathogens, as well as animals and crops.18 By exploring this theme through the case of wheat autarky in Ethiopia, the article also contributes to a growing body of literature investigating the role of nonhumans and the environment in the history of Fascism.19
The Empire's Battle of Wheat
Since the eve of the occupation, Fascist policy-makers toyed with the idea of developing Ethiopia into a vast grain producer capable of feeding the national and indigenous population of the newborn Italian East African Empire (IEA).20 Traversing the country's plateaus during the Italo-Ethiopian war, various Italian observers—from war correspondents to agriculturists in the army—confidently affirmed that highland Ethiopia could be like a new or greater Argentinian pampa for pioneering national farmer-colonists: vast spaces of fertile land ideally suited for extensive wheat production.21 According to the aspirations of Mussolini's regime, wheat would be at the center of imperial agricultural policy. Early in 1936, Fascist authorities expected that Ethiopia could provide enough wheat to feed the future settler population of Italian East Africa and also contribute to wheat provisions in the metropole.22
At first glance, the Ethiopian highlands seemed to hold optimal environmental traits for growing wheat: a temperate climate, fertile soils, and adequate rainfall. And yet, apart from some scattered fields of durum wheat landraces in the central and northern highlands, it was not long before the Italians realized that the plant was little more than a minor element within Ethiopian farmers' cropping systems and diets.23 Why did indigenous agriculture privilege other grains such as teff, barley, and sorghum, despite the supposedly superior productive and nutritional value of wheat? The typically essentialist colonial explanation was that efficient wheat growing required too much care and labor for a supposedly “apathetic” Indigenous people with an aversion to hard work.24 It would fall to the “industrious” Italian settlers, therefore, to act as trailblazers of the wheat plant in the Ethiopian highlands.
Posed with the challenge of inducing the Ethiopian farmer to grow wheat “in place of the cereals that he is accustomed to since centuries,” the journalist F. M. Stefanini asserted on behalf of the nation in typical Fascist voluntarist style: “We must and we will!”25 For imperial enthusiasts such as Stefanini, in fact, Italian aspirations should even go beyond the establishment of large-scale wheat production in Ethiopia. In line with the view of wheat consumption as a sign of civilization, which was common at the time throughout Europe, Stefanini made the case for introducing wheat as a key component of the Ethiopian diet.26 Projecting to Ethiopia a kind of alimentary imperialism similar to that characterizing the transformation of food cultures and consumption in Fascist Italy, Stefanini was confident that under the sway of the Italian Empire, bread wheat would substitute local durum wheat landraces, and wheat flour would replace teff in the making of the traditional injera flatbread.27
And yet, after less than two years since the formation of Italian East Africa, a question was on the lips and minds of many people, both in Italy and on colonial ground: “Can the Empire be self-sufficient?”28 “How many times are we asked this?” exclaimed Raffaele Di Lauro, a high-ranking member of the Fascist colonial establishment. “The man of the street, the ordinary person wonders about this without malice, and not out of sheer curiosity. After two years since our conquest, our information on the economic resources and the prospects of Italian East Africa is indeed often contradictory, sometimes hesitant, and systematically confusing.”29 These doubts—disguised or openly expressed—testified to a changing public perspective on the Italian imperial undertaking. As the general enthusiasm accompanying the proclamation of IEA began to fizzle out in the motherland, rumors of the hardship of the Italian population in the colonies circumvented state propaganda and fed growing public uncertainty and disengagement. For those who embarked to seek their fortune in the empire, the expansion of state investments and business opportunities in the wake of the war was over too soon. The initial “economic wild west” rapidly gave way to stagnation and unemployment.30 In rural areas, the few agricultural entrepreneurs that had already at the time set foot in Ethiopia realized that the country was not, as initially portrayed, a promised land capable of feeding and enriching at once its new inhabitants.31
In fact, the Italian population of the empire was far from self-sufficient, especially in terms of food. The colonial government had to import nearly all food supplies required to feed the growing numbers of Italians in Eritrea, Somalia, and, above all, Ethiopia. On top of the list of imports was wheat flour to make bread, the main staple of the Italian population.32 These food imports soon created a massive trade deficit in the economy of the empire. Without a strong policy to tackle the issue, the deficit risked becoming unsustainable as food requirements continued to increase along with growing numbers of civilians and large military contingents. The metropolitan government did not foresee such problems and found itself unprepared to face them promptly. At the beginning of the occupation, the development of Ethiopia's agricultural resources was the assumed solution for providing food and especially wheat supplies to the Italian population of Italian East Africa. In 1938, however, the agricultural development projects announced by the regime were just passing from the planning phase to their first steps of implementation. Moreover, the agricultural enterprises that started early in 1936–37 were not yet able to provide more than a minimal amount of food to military garrisons and nearby towns.
In response to this grim economic outlook, Italian authorities in Rome and Addis Ababa converged toward a new, pressing imperative: the food autarky of the Italian population of the empire. Although never translated into a comprehensive plan of action, a series of governmental and provincial decrees promulgated in 1937–38 made clear that the goal of food self-sufficiency for the Italian population of IEA was to be attained within the shortest possible time. The call for food autarky was meant to stimulate the local production of most if not all the main elements constituting the common diet of the Italian population. The sizable livestock population of Ethiopia could be a source of supply for Italian producers of canned meat in Eritrea, one of the main staples of the Italian army.33 The enactment of a vegetable import ban in 1938 was directed at supporting and increasing the formation of horticultural enterprises and “informal” vegetable gardens in various regions of Ethiopia.34
The main objective of this new imperative, however, was increasing the internal production of wheat. Soft and durum wheat—the former prevalently used for making bread, the latter for pasta—were at the time the principal elements in the Italian diet. Regional differences in consumer habits had long existed throughout Italy. Yet, since the early twentieth century and especially since World War I, national patterns of consumption converged on wheat flour over corn, barley, rye, and other grains.35 In the 1920s, wheat's importance in Italian diets continued to increase, gradually changing status from luxury food to common ingredient. As most of the national wheat demand was met with imports, the launching of the Battle of Wheat in Italy primarily aimed at making domestic wheat consumption sustainable through increased internal production of the crop.
The call for food autarky in IEA was based on a similar logic of sustainability: given the centrality of wheat in the diets of the Italian military and settler population, it became necessary to provide this resource from within the empire rather than through costly imports from metropolitan markets. Fascist authorities believed that the conquest of Ethiopia had put wheat autarky within reach, as the country's environment seemed to be optimally suited for wheat production on a vast scale.
Other indigenous grains such as teff, durra, barley, and corn presented equal if not better opportunities. Indeed, the production and consumption of these indigenous and therefore “naturally” autarkic grains was often encouraged, for two reasons. Increasing the yields of such grains could ensure the food self-sufficiency of the Ethiopian population. This used to be taken as a given by Italian authorities, until they realized that the expected transition of many Ethiopians away from agriculture and into wage labor could pose a serious threat to indigenous food security. Moreover, these grains could have an important economic function for the Italian population. Flours obtained from these crops could be (and often were) mixed with wheat flour by Italian bread-makers in Ethiopia. Corn and barley could be used by Italian industries in Ethiopia and Eritrea for making beer and spirits.36 However, these were still considered “secondary cereals” in relation to wheat. The Italians' greater familiarity with wheat in terms of both cultivation and consumption led this crop to take absolute precedence over other grains. Owing to the key importance of wheat for the Italian population and the apparent large-scale applicability of its cultivation in the Ethiopian highlands, the question of imperial food autarky therefore largely translated into a quest for imperial wheat autarky.
The policy shift toward wheat autarky was evident initially in the changing discourse about the economic and agricultural prospects of Ethiopia. In the period preceding and immediately following the conquest, the description of the country's natural resources mostly revolved around impressionistic, captivating accounts of journalists, travelers, and propagandists. Since 1938, it is possible to observe a parallel “professionalization” of such narratives by experts and institutions. The prominent colonial agronomist Armando Maugini was the key figure in this process. Maugini started his career as director of the Agrarian Office of Cyrenaica in the early 1920s, and progressively rose to become one of the government's top advisers on colonization and agrarian development.37 His reputation was, however, largely due to his decade-long direction of the Florence-based Colonial Agricultural Institute, Italy's leading research and training institution for colonial and tropical agriculture.38 In 1938, the institute was formally integrated into the colonial administrative framework and renamed the Royal Agronomic Institute for Italian Africa (hereafter referred to as the Agronomic Institute).39 Under the leadership of Maugini, the Agronomic Institute and its journal L'agricoltura coloniale became the main platform for the scientific discussion of the prospects and implementation of wheat autarky in Ethiopia.
The more scientific character of these discussions, of course, did not make them less political. From the more analytical and meticulous papers of L'agricoltura coloniale to the amalgam of technical and adulatory views contained in specialized journals such as L'autarchia alimentare, agrarian experts' accounts were still embedded in a Fascist framework and linked to Fascist social and economic aspirations. The very justification of the need for such “professional” narratives was that they could show the best way to achieve the goals of the regime. Whereas the “superficiality” (faciloneria) of travelogues and propagandistic journalism was considered to be ultimately disguising and counterproductive, the intervention of agrarian experts sought to provide a clear goal and a realistic perspective on how to attain wheat autarky in the empire.40
IEA's economic sustainability depended on the internal production of at least 1 million quintals of wheat per year, the amount equivalent to 1938 flour imports.41 Given the apparent suitability of wheat growing in the Ethiopian highlands, experts estimated that it would be sufficient to expand the hectarage of wheat in order to achieve adequate levels of production. Since, however, large tracts of land would need to be kept for the Ethiopian population's food crops, experts also called for a marked increase in the productivity of wheat farming.42 The agricultural activities of Italian colonization projects would have to be strongly oriented toward wheat production.43 Yet, considering the still modest size and productive capacity of national estates, the bulk of the production had to be found elsewhere in the short run. It was at this juncture that indigenous agriculture began to be seriously considered as an essential resource. Experts asserted that convincing and assisting Ethiopian farmers to switch their extensive and diverse cereal cultivations to wheat was the main and best hope for the Italian Empire to rapidly ramp up production to self-sufficiency levels.44
Considered as a whole, the 1938 turn toward wheat autarky could be seen as the transposition of the Battle of Wheat from Italy to the Ethiopian context. The recourse to scientific expertise, the involvement of all productive sectors toward the attainment of wheat self-sufficiency, the planned expansion and intensification of wheat production through economic incentives and technical assistance: these were instruments and goals that clearly evoked the ongoing economic and agricultural masterplan of the Fascist regime. As illustrated by Tiago Saraiva, the Battle of Wheat was “the first mass propaganda act of Mussolini's regime.”45 Launched in 1925, the program aimed to reach wheat self-sufficiency by expanding the cultivation of the crop across the Italian peninsula and above all by increasing average productivity to at least fifteen quintals per hectare. Praised at the time as one of the great accomplishments of Fascist policy, the Battle of Wheat was declared won in 1933, when national wheat requirements could be almost entirely covered by that year's harvest of 80 million quintals.46
As many historians have pointed out, the figures adduced to demonstrate the “victory” of the Battle of Wheat were in many respects a facade concealing the problematic implications and consequences of this policy. The Battle of Wheat entrenched social and economic inequalities both between northern and southern regions, and among wealthy landowners, smallholders, and landless peasants across the peninsula.47 While yields definitely increased in the northern plains areas through the massive adoption of fertilizers, mechanization, and other “modern” inputs, in the south, wheat farming developed to a large extent in an extensive manner, by converting fallow, grazing, and forest areas into arable farmland. These developments profoundly altered the country's agrarian landscape and environment. The prolonged emphasis on wheat monoculture led to less diversified farming strategies and thus to higher food insecurity and dependency in poorer areas. Region-specific traditional agricultural practices progressively lost their centrality, with great costs for local crop and genetic diversity.48
In this light, one of the most significant components of the Battle of Wheat was the strategy of “seed replacement” (cambio delle sementi), or the substitution of traditional landraces with “elite wheat races” (razze elette), supposedly high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties.49 This strategy was mainly based on the pioneering work of the wheat geneticist and plant breeder Nazareno Strampelli, who released in the course of the 1920s a set of cultivars obtained through genetic selection and above all hybridization, which were later disseminated and defined as “the varieties of victory.”50 As shown in a survey conducted in 1939–40, “elite wheat races” prevailed almost entirely throughout northern and central Italy, and were less predominant but still significant in southern regions.51 Agrarian experts assumed a key role in coordinating this particular process. In general, agrarian experts at all levels of the government apparatus—from policy advisers and plant breeders to local agronomists and extension agents—became crucial elements in the planning and implementation of the Battle of Wheat.52
While involving all regions of the metropole—albeit differently and with different results—the Battle of Wheat had never been extended to Italy's colonies. Since the early 1920s, colonial agronomists conducted various trials of Strampelli's cultivars in Libya and contemplated the prospect of intensifying wheat production in parallel with the expected growth of Italian settlements in the province of Cyrenaica.53 After a series of poor results and crop failures, the idea of developing Italian wheat farming in Libya on a large scale was cast aside as unfeasible and unprofitable. A similar reasoning applied to Eritrea and Somalia, Italy's colonies in the Horn of Africa. The environment of these regions was far from ideal for growing wheat, and the scarce Italian presence did not make that crop a necessity. Italian agricultural undertakings rather concentrated on the development of cash crops such as cotton in Eritrea, and sugarcane in Somalia.54
In 1925, as the director of the Agronomic Institute Armando Maugini affirmed with a hint of resignation, Italian colonial possessions could contribute very little, if anything, to the Battle of Wheat.55 Eleven years later, however, Maugini welcomed Italian rule in the fertile Ethiopian highlands as a possible game changer for the prospects of colonial wheat production.56 Still, agrarian experts warned that Ethiopia was not an “El Dorado.” In order to unlock the highlands' agricultural wealth, it would take a different approach than merely transferring en bloc Italian wheat technology and relying on the skills of settler farmers.
Italian experts closely tied the success of the imperial Battle of Wheat to the framing of strategies and technologies specifically adapted to Ethiopia's different environments.57 To this end, it was therefore necessary to initiate a countrywide program of wheat research and experimentation in the Ethiopian highlands. Agrarian experts envisioned two parallel research programs. The first and most immediate was experimentation with Italian “elite wheat races” (and in particular Strampelli's “varieties of victory”) in the diverse agroecological areas of the highlands.58 The second program was more ambitious and long-term, but was considered by some experts to be indispensable. According to this perspective, the empire should be endowed with its own varieties of victory.59 Drawing from the rich genetic diversity of indigenous landraces, colonial agronomists and plant breeders would release new cultivars, tailored to the principal characteristics of the highlands' soils and climate. As stated by the wheat expert and plant pathologist Raffaele Ciferri—the major proponent of this strategy—the Imperial Battle of Wheat should represent an evolution, rather than a revolution, of existing indigenous crops.60
The valorization of “indigenous” resources in place of Fascist “technoscientific organisms” such as Strampelli's seeds might seem at first to run counter to the heavily civilizational and racist framework of the Fascist Empire, but it became quite common among agrarian experts and colonial practitioners. Ciferri was far from being a pariah in the Italian scientific community. He held prominent positions in Italian academia. He published his findings and proposals not only in specialized journals but also in important Fascist outlets, and was invited to present them at the Regia Accademia dei Georgofili, one of Italy's oldest and most prestigious scientific institutions. Ciferri's ideas on imperial wheat autarky were shared by fellow experts and government authorities alike, because they seemed both scientifically rigorous and functional to the development of colonial rule.
From a scientific standpoint, the idea of grounding the project of wheat autarky on indigenous genetic resources was based on preliminary surveys conducted by Ciferri and others on Ethiopian wheats, which in turn stemmed from the pioneering findings of the renowned Soviet plant geneticist Nikolai I. Vavilov.61 Following a research trip in 1927, Vavilov was the first scientist to systematically collect and classify the many species and varieties of wheat endemic to the Ethiopian highlands. Considering the great diversity and unique features of these landraces, Vavilov posited the Ethiopian highlands as one of the major “centers of origin” of world wheats and other cereals.62 These findings generated much interest among national and international scientific communities in the 1930s.63 In the Italian context, the discovery of the Ethiopian “center of origin” even escaped scientific circles and fueled a popular misinterpretation of Vavilov's theories as clear proof that all kinds of wheat could naturally prosper in the highlands' environment.64
It took some years for Italian agrarian experts to correct this assumption. The highlands were fertile, yes, but also peculiar and unknown in their climate and soils. The variety and unique behavior of Ethiopian wheat landraces did not make them an immediately profitable resource, but rather an optimal genetic reservoir from which plant breeders could draw in engineering new “elite” cultivars. Compared to Strampelli's cultivars, Ethiopian landraces gave very low yields. Moreover, preliminary tests on indigenous durum wheat flours revealed how they were generally low in gluten, thus making them poorly suited to bread making.65 Still, highlands landraces showed a marked adaptability to the particular environment and climate of the Ethiopian highlands. Moreover, Ethiopian wheat landraces—like teff and other highlands indigenous cereals—were generally characterized by an exceptionally short growing cycle, a feature that if combined with high-yielding properties could both prevent seasonal diseases and provide a good harvest.66
The release of new cultivars through the selection and hybridization of Ethiopian landraces, however, would have obviously taken years of laboratory work and experimentation. For Italian agrarian experts like Ciferri, “imperial hybrids” could represent the future of Italian wheat development in Ethiopia, yet the urgency of the empire's looming food crisis required immediate answers. Although a secondary occupation in the agricultural life of the Ethiopian highlands, indigenous wheat growing already possessed the means to satisfy the immediate requirements of the Italian Empire, according to Ciferri. Ciferri estimated that even a rough selection and multiplication of the best strains of indigenous landraces could bring productivity to adequate levels.67
Rather than starting anew with untested imported technologies and practices, Ciferri and other experts contended, sustaining existing methods of cultivation represented in many cases a more dependable means of increasing production. Italian agronomists deployed in various highland areas had started to realize that Ethiopian farmers' agricultural techniques were much more rational and sounder than initially assumed. As a case in point, a wheat field managed by an Ethiopian farmer frequently consisted of a large number of assorted landraces. Sometimes, wheat was even found mixed with other grains in the same plot. Agrarian scientists and field experts were initially taken aback by this practice, which they saw as “promiscuous” compared to a seemingly rational and efficient method of growing different crops in separate fields. Ciferri noted that such practices would lead to lower yields. Yet, he also understood how so-called promiscuous wheat growing rested on a deep ecological knowledge of the limits and possibilities of the crop in Ethiopia's highland environments. In fact, intercropping different landraces of various grains would likely prevent the spread of crop- or variety-specific diseases and ensure a sufficient harvest even in adverse climatic events.68
Following a similar process of field observation, agrarian experts started to appreciate the ecological advantages of the traditional highlands plow (maresha in Amharic). The main contributors to this reappraisal were Giovanni Vitali and Enrico Bartolozzi, authors of an extensive study of Ethiopian farming tools conducted in 1937 and published by the Agronomic Institute in 1939.69 The major feature of the maresha was that it did not invert the soil but merely broke it superficially.70 This contrasted with the kind of deep plowing commonly practiced in “modern” European agriculture, to the extent that the Italians initially regarded the maresha as a clear sign of the “primitiveness” of indigenous farming. On the contrary, Vitali and Bartolozzi's research showed the functionality and ecological efficiency of the Ethiopian plow. Its simple design made it easy to repair and adjust to the various soils of the highlands. Shallow tillage was not a symptom of technical ignorance but a deliberate practice to preserve soil moisture and prevent erosion.71 This feature led agrarian experts to praise the maresha and recommend its larger adoption in Italian wheat farming. Likewise, field studies of customary grain threshing and milling in specific highlands areas revealed the high level of sophistication and efficiency of these practices.72 In the case of agricultural techniques, therefore, agrarian experts pragmatically claimed that the imperial Battle of Wheat should take its first steps by following traditional highlands wheat growing.73 Further research could then help determine which materials and practices to maintain, which to improve, and which to substitute with technological inputs from the imperial metropole.
To this end, in 1938 the colonial government sought to accelerate the establishment of agrarian technical services and research institutions in the major grain-producing areas of Ethiopia. The formal core of data collection and experimentation on wheat was located at the Crop and Livestock Experimentation Center in Bole, in the southern outskirts of Addis Ababa.74 There, colonial agronomists started trials of various Italian cultivars and began the selection of the best strains of indigenous landraces.75 After the first trials, these varieties were tested at satellite stations with different agroclimatic conditions. Then, the most promising strains were sown in multiplication plots in preparation for their eventual distribution to wheat farmers in nearby areas.76 In addition to centrally coordinated experimentation, peripheral wheat stations were set up in each province and run individually by local agrarian officials.77 As shown in the next section, Italian colonization centers contributed to this process by running their own “informal” seed trials.
The experimentation of indigenous landraces was not confined to Ethiopia but was soon linked to Italian research institutions as well. The Agronomic Institute in Florence provided fundamental scientific assistance by analyzing samples and discussing research findings with international wheat experts such as the British botanist John Percival.78 Furthermore, the institute involved various universities and individual farms in the experimentation with Ethiopian landraces in different localities of the metropole, in order to study their behavior and possible utilization outside of their home environment.79 Research of this type mainly revolved around highlands wheat varieties but also focused on other grains indigenous to Ethiopia. In particular, the Agronomic Institute investigated the potential uses of teff. Since the late nineteenth century, British botanists had attempted to acclimatize teff at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and in various stations in India, Australia, and British Guyana. Using samples from the Eritrean highlands, similar trials were made in Italy in the 1910s. The Agronomic Institute resumed this process of experimentation in its research farm in the Tuscan hills. As Ciferri and the Institute's agronomist Isaia Baldrati argued in their study on teff, the plant could have an important economic and ecological function both within and outside of Ethiopia.80 While Ethiopian highland farmers cultivated teff as a primary food crop, the Italians deemed it unsuitable for European-style bread making. For Italian scientists, the potential of teff farming resided mainly in its capacity to control erosion, maintain soil fertility, and, above all, serve as forage for cattle. Teff had been successfully acclimatized in South Africa and was being cultivated largely for this latter purpose. Encouraged by these results, the Italians started to promote the transcolonial circulation and experimentation of teff from Ethiopia to Italian Libya.81
Overall, the experimental work in Ethiopia in 1937–38 was impressively extensive and rapid compared to the slow development of agricultural research in other colonial contexts. However, a series of interrelated problems impaired progress in wheat experimentation in Italian-occupied Ethiopia. The haste and urgency following the call for wheat autarky forced research farms to draw conclusions from inevitably preliminary and incomplete trials. Moreover, the establishment of an effective agrarian technical framework soon proved to be beyond the financial and structural capacities of the colonial administration.
Wheat research and experimentation suffered from a constant lack of funds and competent personnel. In addition, the program soon became characterized by a systematic lack of coordination. The central experimental body in Addis Ababa never managed to establish clear leadership and division of work among its various satellite and peripheral centers.82 Findings rarely circulated beyond each station and its neighboring agricultural centers, leading to frequent duplication of work and the reiteration of failed experiments. Despite a nominally extensive research program, therefore, Italian wheat producers received very little assistance and often inaccurate guidelines in the field. As one of these farmers wrote to Maugini in 1942, they were “in the dark about anything that could represent experience, or practice, of local agriculture.”83 Without the solid backing of scientific institutions, Italian wheat agriculture was de facto entrusted with only one diktat: produce as much as possible, in the shortest time possible, with all the means available.84
Following the general call for wheat autarky in Ethiopia, most of the Italian agricultural undertakings already in place in 1937–38 fully redirected their activities toward wheat production.85 Moreover, the colonial government supported the establishment of ad hoc wheat enterprises, such as the agricultural concessions of the Confederazione Fascista degli Agricoltori (Fascist Farmers' Confederation, CFA), the Pattuglie del Grano (Wheat Squads), and the Centurie di Precolonizzazione (Centuries of Precolonization).86 These new projects turned out to be mere facades of the colonial government's claims to increase wheat production, and their role in the achievement of wheat self-sufficiency was minimal throughout the occupation.87 In most cases, such projects had been inadequately planned and were even more inadequately managed on the ground. Despite the wide publicity given in Fascist publications and news outlets, government support to these projects dwindled soon after the first setbacks. Overall, the material and financial contribution of the state to Italian wheat farming did not nearly match that given to roads, infrastructure, and public works in general.88
Over the three years in which the Battle of Wheat was implemented in the Ethiopian highlands, the only Italian enterprises that managed to produce significant amounts of wheat were concentrated in three main areas. The first was in the rural surroundings of Addis Ababa, mainly owing to the colonization centers of the parastatal agency Opera Nazionale Combattenti (ONC) in Bishoftu and Holeta. The second was in Dabat—located on the plateau down the western slopes of the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia—where another state-controlled agency named Ente Romagna d'Etiopia established its main colonization project. The third was in Assela, two hundred kilometers south of the capital in the Arssi region, where various Italian consortia and private investors established an agricultural district, mostly dedicated to wheat production, of more than fifteen thousand hectares. Still, all these undertakings had only begun in their respective areas in 1938 and could not by themselves meet the government's wheat requirements.
Lacking enough men and machinery but still pressed to make the best use of the land that was granted, Italian farm managers had to rely heavily on sharecropping with local Ethiopian farmers in order to generate immediate agricultural outputs.89 These sharecropping agreements were not isolated cases but ended up characterizing a great part of Italian agricultural development activities during the occupation. Despite the official emphasis on pioneering Italian farmers, in practice the imperial Battle of Wheat depended on Ethiopian farmers and finding ways and incentives to make them grow wheat on a large scale. Italian reports on land use clearly show that Ethiopian sharecroppers were the main productive element of colonization centers and private agricultural concessions.90 Owing to a series of pragmatic considerations, including the repeated delays in the arrival of settlers and their generally mediocre agricultural skills, the farm managers of the ONC and the Ente Romagna could not but seek the collaboration of neighboring Ethiopian farmers to make their land productive. For colonization centers as well as private agricultural districts, another issue was the great fragmentation of their estates, often divided in distant units interspersed with local farmers' individual plots. Italian farm managers rarely had the means or the political backing to evict farmers in order to form unified estates, so that large-scale mechanized projects were often abandoned in favor of sharecropping with local small farmers.91
In response, the colonial government's agrarian services set up a series of disorganized but extensive campaigns to stimulate wheat production among Ethiopian small farmers. Local officials in various areas frequently distributed tools and seeds to farmers at the beginning of the sowing season.92 Many mills, grain storage units, and other infrastructural developments were built in proximity to colonization centers and agricultural concessions so as to facilitate the collection of the crop from remote areas.93 Above all, Italian campaigns created a set of market incentives in the hope of making wheat growing a profitable and safe enterprise for Ethiopian farmers. Other than production prizes (monetary or in kind) and tax exemptions, the colonial government set a very high minimum price for wheat (equal for Italian and Ethiopian farmers) and guaranteed the purchase of the entire harvest.94
Despite little coordination and irregular application, these measures boosted wheat production substantially. A considerable number of Ethiopian farmers began to grow wheat as a cash crop for the Italians. A survey of the 1938–39 season showed that wheat was still a relatively minor element of indigenous consumption and production.95 In a short time, however, wheat became an important crop in the agricultural rotations of many highland farmers, especially those living in proximity to urban areas and Italian agricultural centers. Thanks to Ethiopian farming, Italian authorities were able to obtain approximately 750,000 quintals of wheat from the 1938–39 harvest.96 Considering the urgency of the situation and the largely improvised devices put in place to increase production, Ciferri saw these figures as promising for imperial wheat autarky. In order to increase production by 25 percent and thus reach the minimum goal of 1 million quintals, Ciferri and other experts thought that the continued dissemination of selected strains of indigenous landraces and the expansion of production area would suffice.
The relatively encouraging outcome of the 1938–39 harvest led experts to believe that, at least in theory, the cultivation of wheat could become the dominant agricultural occupation in the Ethiopian highlands. The goal of wheat autarky for Italian East Africa then seemed feasible and close at hand. Before the entire Fascist imperial undertaking crumbled at the hands of the British troops in 1941, however, the grand project of wheat development had already clashed against a subtler but no less dangerous enemy: rust, a fungal plant disease that remains one of the greatest biotic threats to wheat at a global level.
The Rust Years
Italian travelogues and propaganda initially explained the scarcity of wheat in Ethiopia by pointing to the supposed innate laziness of Indigenous farmers. It soon became clear, however, that Ethiopian farmers privileged the extensive cultivation of other cereals because of their relative resistance to rust.97 Since the early twentieth century, Italian wheat breeding had among its main objectives not just high yields but also rust resistance. Many of Strampelli's high-yielding hybrid cultivars had been specifically bred to allow profitable wheat growing in rust-prone areas of central and northern Italy. Yet this did not guarantee their prospering in different agroecological contexts. In fact, the first results of experimentation in Ethiopia confirmed that in most cases Italian “elite wheat races” underwent considerable morphological mutations and showed a marked degradation of their agronomic traits.98 While generally resistant to rust strains present in Italy, Strampelli's cultivars proved to be much more vulnerable to rust in Ethiopia.
The only “elite wheat race” that seemed to fare well in the new environment was the hybrid cultivar named Mentana. Released in the 1920s through the crossbreeding of the Italian variety Rieti and the Japanese Akakomughi, Mentana was later considered to be the “masterpiece” of Strampelli.99 Praised for its wide adaptation, optimal yields, and good flours, Mentana was widely adopted in all regions of Italy, in various Mediterranean countries, and in Latin America in the 1930s.100 In the 1940s, Mentana was one of the key varieties selected by Norman Borlaug for the development of his groundbreaking Mexican wheat breeding program.101 After various tests in different localities of the Ethiopian highlands, agrarian experts noted how Mentana kept its intrinsic features—very short growth cycle, drought tolerance, and adaptation to different soils—and remained relatively unaffected by rust in contrast to other imported varieties.102
Despite the preliminary and incomplete nature of these trials, the promising performance of Mentana led colonial authorities to encourage the diffusion of this variety from experimental plots to farmers' fields.103 The cultivar started to be adopted to sustain the expansion of Italian colonization centers and agricultural concessions. It had already been widely used by Eritrean farmers in 1936–37 and was apparently one of the most common seeds distributed by Italian authorities to highland farmers during the 1938–39 campaign.104 Owing to its higher yields vis-à-vis local landraces, the variety grew quite popular among Ethiopian farmers, where in some areas it became known as Roma sinde (Amharic for “Rome's wheat”).105 However, the sudden surge in the popularity of Mentana brought with it difficulty in meeting mounting demand for its seed. The remoteness of some agricultural areas hampered distribution of Mentana seeds. Moreover, seed farms—given the early stage of their work—did not yet have enough land and resources to meet demand. Most Mentana supplies had to be shipped directly from Italy, an undertaking that was logistically as well as financially arduous. The colonial administration could only satisfy a small portion of this growing demand.
Thus, Italian agricultural centers were not able to implement a coherent agricultural strategy, as they had to rely on the amounts and varieties of seed that were locally available.106 In many circumstances, indigenous wheat landraces were the only feasible option for Italian farm managers. Sometimes, however, their cultivation was the fruit of a deliberate choice over imported varieties. For example, reporting on a visit to the Ente Romagna in Dabat during his “Ethiopian grand tour” in 1939, Italian writer Curzio Malaparte noted how “experience” oriented the Ente's farm manager toward the large-scale adoption of local wheat varieties in the estate.107 Likewise, some agricultural concessionaires in the Assela district opted to plant local landraces along with or instead of Italian cultivars, and also adopted indigenous tools and techniques.108 Either out of necessity or choice, indigenous wheat became an important component of Italian agriculture in the Ethiopian highlands.
Notwithstanding limited supplies and alternative strategies, the production area of Mentana increased considerably in 1939. In some areas, the cultivar was grown in monoculture, in the hope that it would replicate on a larger scale the first positive yields of the previous harvest.109 Contrary to colonial authorities' best expectations, however, the imperial wheat development project encountered two violent outbreaks of rust in the following seasons. Especially in 1940 —named in hindsight the “the Rust Year”—the disease severely attacked and in some cases completely destroyed wheat cultivations of both Italian and Ethiopian farmers.110 Rust hit all imported varieties hard but also affected indigenous landraces that were normally spared from serious damage. As noted by plant pathologist Ettore Castellani, the Italian wheat campaigns had led many highland farmers to extend the cultivation of wheat to environments that were evidently more conducive to the diffusion of rust. Until then, Ethiopian farming limited the cultivation of wheat to specific areas characterized by high altitudes and stable rainfall patterns—a practice that rested on the knowledge of the agroecological conditions necessary to minimize the incidence of the disease. The Italian call for expanding wheat production induced several farmers to overlook this knowledge and thus break the agroecological equilibrium between local landraces and their optimal environment.111
For those Ethiopian farmers that had adopted Mentana seeds, the virulence of the outbreak was so unprecedented that it earned other names than those usually employed to describe rust in Amharic.112 However, it was in the wheat fields directly cultivated by the Italians that rust hit hardest. Only the managers of the Ente Romagna d'Etiopia in Dabat did not report extensive damage from rust, probably owing to the favorable location of the estate and the minimal use of imported cultivars. There, the cultivation of wheat continued and expanded in 1939 and 1940, supplying bread flour to the Italian population of the northern city of Gondar until the British takeover in November 1941.113 In the central highlands, on the other hand, rust turned out to be devastating for Italian agriculture, especially since it was often preceded by large locust invasions.114 Around Addis Ababa, the crops of the CFA were almost entirely destroyed, to the point that some concessionaires did not think it worth harvesting the few areas that were spared.115
Likewise, rust spread widely across the Italian agricultural district in Assela, particularly in the main concession of the Società Italiana Importazione Banane (Italian Company for Banana Imports, SIMBA). Despite its association with a specific crop, SIMBA was a large joint-stock company operating in multiple fields, including, since 1938, that of large-scale wheat production in the Ethiopian highlands. According to available sources, SIMBA's direct involvement in agricultural development came after a specific request from Mussolini. Endowed with considerable public financing, SIMBA could have started various model agricultural enterprises to serve as examples for prospective agricultural investors. In the wake of the general call to increase wheat production, it was also intended to showcase the success of the empire's pursuit of wheat autarky.116 To this end, SIMBA was granted an estate of ten thousand hectares in the Assela agricultural district, to be grown with wheat via mechanized farming.117 As with all Italian agricultural projects, the initial plan soon gave way to improvisation. Owing to the presence of local farming communities, the area available to cultivate wheat was actually smaller than originally envisioned and was mostly cultivated through sharecropping with Indigenous farmers.118 At the start of the 1940–41 season, the SIMBA concession totaled six thousand hectares sown with wheat. Early reports of the company's agronomist Mario Pavirani suggested an optimistic outlook for the harvest, expected to yield around fifty-five thousand quintals.119 But then—as Pavirani noted in despair—rust crept over the wheat fields:
Our wheat crops seemed in a state of grace, then rust suddenly appeared. The disease developed sneakily and dramatically, it immediately looked uncontrollable. Rust hit most of our cultivated lands at progressive intervals, and the evil is now present everywhere. We can and could do nothing against this plague that has turned our crops into barren lands. Now we can suppose that the harvest is halved, if we are lucky. It is absolutely painful, it gives me a sort of fatherly sorrow to see our work, our fertile fields suddenly disappearing under the impulse of a superior and unstoppable will.120
Faced with such a desperate situation, colonial authorities called on some of the best Italian plant pathologists to appraise the damage and find possible solutions. The deputy director of the Royal Plant Pathology Station of Rome, Cesare Sibilia, was one of Italy's main specialists on cereal rusts and in this capacity undertook the first research trips and scientific analyses of rust in Ethiopia.121 In addition, the newly appointed head of plant pathology for IEA, Antonio Ciccarone, visited the CFA and SIMBA estates to get a firsthand account of the outbreak.122 According to Ciccarone, the adverse climate trend of 1940 was one key factor in the proliferation of the disease. The consecutive rapid succession of very dry and rainy weather during the growing and maturing stages of wheat in 1940 created the ideal environment for the reproduction of the rust fungus. Beyond the adverse climate, however, it was the very configuration of Italian concessions as agricultural districts—monocultural estates attached to each other—that facilitated the spread of the outbreaks from their initial loci.123 Furthermore, Ciccarone found that the large diffusion of Mentana seeds in Italian estates and adjacent indigenous fields was another important cause of the virulence of rust in 1940. The intensive cultivation of this variety in delimited areas created the conditions for the evolution and reproduction in a short time of the rust races most damaging to it. Initially seen as a possible shortcut toward wheat self-sufficiency, the rushed preference of a single cultivar over varietal diversification in fact greatly complicated Italian plans for wheat development.124
Compared to the optimism sparked by the harvest of 1938, the negative results of the following seasons made colonial authorities acutely aware that if taken too far, the dependency on food and especially wheat imports would eventually end in the economic collapse of IEA. Besides the great economic consequences, moreover, agrarian experts warned of the “moral damage” caused by the failure of Italian-led agricultural campaigns. Confronted with the repeated loss of their produce and the apparent agricultural impasse of the faranj, Ethiopian farmers would likely distrust and oppose any further prospect of collaboration with the Italians.125 Wheat experimentation and breeding were also disrupted by the rust outbreaks of 1939 and 1940.126 Colonial plant breeders had just started the long-term quest for new “varieties of victory” adapted to Ethiopian conditions, while colonial agronomists stationed in various highland areas struggled to provide a coherent and reliable seed strategy. In this context, a beacon of hope for the future of Italian wheat development came somewhat unexpectedly from British Kenya.
Colonial historiography rarely dwells on how the Italian occupation, as a sui generis colonial experiment, captured the attention of other colonial empires. Likewise, the constitution of the Italian imperial project in East Africa was not just an exclusively Fascist, self-referential enterprise but drew to a considerable extent from the ideals and examples of various African colonies. Especially in the fields of science and agriculture, Italian colonial experts had significant exchanges with their British, French, Belgian, and Portuguese counterparts. The hosting in Tripoli of the International Congress of Tropical and Subtropical Agriculture in 1939 testified that Italian colonial expertise and Fascist colonial rule could draw the interest of and become a central player in the international scientific and colonial community.127
Apart from these public events, intercolonial exchanges also took more intimate and substantial forms. Italian colonial agronomists undertook several missions to other African colonies with the goal of learning particular aspects of colonial agriculture and possibly applying them to Ethiopia. For example, Italian emissaries were sent to observe the organization of cotton production in Mozambique.128 Moreover, the Italians made no secret that the Belgian Congo was a prominent example for the development of both cotton and coffee production in Ethiopia. Likewise, Belgian high-ranking colonial officials such as Edmond Leplae praised Italian demographic colonization as a positive model of colonial expansion.129 Under the aegis of the Agronomic Institute, freshly graduated colonial agronomists were sent to Belgian Congo's plant breeding stations and experiment farms for research and training.130
Despite increasingly difficult relations between the Fascist regime and the British government at the international level, communication and exchanges on the ground between British diplomats—for example, the Consul-General in Addis Ababa Hugh Stonehewer-Bird—and the Fascist colonial government were quite frequent and cordial, especially since the appointment of the anglophile Duke Amedeo of Aosta as viceroy of IEA.131 In the agricultural and scientific field, Italian and British experts from neighboring Kenya entertained numerous exchanges during the occupation period, also owing to the fact that British Kenya was considered to be at the time the brightest example of successful wheat growing in colonial East Africa.
In May 1937, Giuseppe Taticchi, director of the ONC in Ethiopia, visited the colonial agricultural exhibition in Nairobi to learn about British progress in the field and most likely publicize the advancement of Italian agrarian colonization. On that occasion, he purchased five thousand quintals of Kenyan bread wheat seeds on behalf of the Italian colonial government, of which two thousand were destined to the ONC itself.132 The reason for this was that in the spring of 1937, the ONC was still awaiting the seeds required to start wheat cultivations in its farms.133 The colonial government's supplying agency had almost run short of imported seeds, and could only provide limited amounts of local indigenous seed mixtures. The shipment of Kenyan wheat arrived too late in the sowing season, so that the ONC had to initially rely on local seeds. ONC agronomists then carried out the first tests of the two main strains of imported Kenyan wheat (NB1 and NB500), with excellent results.134 Subsequent field trials in Italian experimental farms confirmed the findings of these “informal” plot study observations: in addition to out-yielding local and imported varieties, Kenyan cultivars proved practically immune to rust races prevalent in the Ethiopian highlands.
In addition to Taticchi's visit, a research trip to Kenya by Italian agronomist Luigi Bologna made clear the reasons behind the excellent performance of Kenyan wheats. Bologna's two-month tour of British Kenya's agricultural research facilities included a visit to the Njoro station in the Rift Valley, the colony's main wheat breeding and experimentation center alongside the Nairobi-based Scott Agricultural Laboratories.135 Since the establishment of the center in 1927, British scientists had made great progress in the fight against wheat rust by releasing resistant cultivars bred from local strains and foreign varieties. Indeed, rust had long been the greatest enemy of white settlers' wheat production in the Rift Valley. Since the early 1900s, rust had impaired initial British attempts to cultivate imported bread wheats.136 While wheat production greatly increased in the 1920s, this was mostly due to an expansion in hectarage following settlers' massive appropriation of indigenous land. Periodic rust outbreaks continued to be a big problem for wheat growers, as the first few breeds released during these years were still highly susceptible to the disease.137 The fall in world cereal prices during the Great Depression led to the rapid shrinking of the wheat production area in the Kenyan highlands, and the focus shifted toward increasing productivity by developing rust-resistant varieties. The 1930s were a turning point in this sense. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, plant breeders in British Kenya played a pioneering role in the release of rust-resistant, high-yielding bread wheat cultivars.138 In the 1940s, Borlaug recognized Kenyan cultivars' unique resistance to rust, as he made them a central component of his wheat experimentation program in Mexico.139
Probably owing to the similarity of the environment, Kenyan wheat cultivars replicated their excellent behavior in the Ethiopian highlands. Further trials in different stations largely confirmed their immunity to rust races predominant in the region at that time.140 After the “discovery” of rust resistance at the ONC farm in Bishoftu, then, other colonization agencies and concessionaires requested batches of these seeds for their estates.141 In 1940, Kenyan cultivars could be found in various Italian agricultural centers: in all cases, they outperformed Italian and local varieties and were unaffected by that year's rust outbreaks. Due to the limited supplies available, however, Kenyan wheat occupied only a minor portion of Italian and Ethiopian wheat fields. Because of its efficiency, but also because of its scarcity, these varieties became a highly valuable commodity in Ethiopia. Diplomatic and commercial issues with the British Empire encumbered the purchase of seeds from Kenya in large quantities.142 In order to increase internal production, the colonial government instructed the ONC to halt sales of Kenyan wheat for consumption and redistribute the harvested seeds to other Italian farms.143 But again, it would have taken time to see the broad impact of this seed multiplication program. Most Italian agrarian experts and farm managers in the field were eventually convinced that Kenyan cultivars could represent the best if not the only opportunity to rapidly reach the much-needed wheat self-sufficiency of the empire. However, the limited local availability of these seeds precluded the swift application of this strategy.144
The British Army's invasion of Ethiopia at the beginning of World War II brought all these plans to an abrupt end. The colonial experiment of Italian East Africa was over, and with that the grand aspiration of imperial wheat autarky. Before the British took over Italian properties and agricultural estates in late 1941, however, the colonial imaginary of turning the Ethiopian highlands into the breadbasket of the empire had already clashed with a disease that was ultimately unsurmountable in the short run with the few means available. The British army and the Ethiopian patriots may have won the actual war, but it was a fungus that defeated the Italians in the imperial Battle of Wheat.
While the imperial Battle of Wheat was over, the fight for increasing wheat production continued in the Ethiopian battlefield. World War II and the British military occupation of Ethiopia between 1942 and 1944 consolidated some of the key dynamics introduced by the Italians following the involvement of indigenous farming in wheat production for colonial markets. When British troops completed their victory against the remaining Italian forces in November 1941, many Ethiopian farmers throughout the central and northern highlands were almost ready to harvest their wheat fields. In the expectation that the new faranj, like the old ones, would purchase all of their harvest, numerous Ethiopian farming communities continued the practice of growing wheat as a cash crop.145 This conjecture eventually proved to be well founded.
Beginning in 1942, Ethiopia became a key supplier of wheat, durra, barley, and other cereals for the relief operations of the Middle East Supply Center (MESC).146 The United Kingdom Commercial Corporation and the Ethiopian National Corporation—an agency of the reestablished Ethiopian government led by Emperor Haile Selassie—coordinated a countrywide program of economic mobilization for wheat production that had many concrete connections with the previous Italian-led wheat campaigns. The main production areas of wheat remained the same from the occupation to the war and the early postwar years. Ethiopian small farmers continued to figure as the main contributors to wheat production. Moreover, British and Ethiopian authorities hired numerous former Italian colonial agronomists and technicians and put Italian agricultural machinery back into use in an effort to ensure the continuity of wheat production for export.147
Even after the end of the war in 1945, Ethiopian cereal exports continued to grow at a fast pace in the wake of the intensification of production of the previous years. According to a FAO representative in Ethiopia, cereal exports in 1947 amounted to over 1.3 million quintals, with a 40 percent increase estimated for 1948.148 Until the boom in coffee exports in the mid-1950s, wheat and other cereals remained the leading export commodity of Ethiopia.149 During these years, wheat continued its consolidation in the crop rotations of Ethiopian farmers and became more important in the diet of the country's urban and rural population.
Wheat also continued its rise as a valuable resource for national policy-makers and international development agencies. As rust continued to be one of the greatest threats to wheat production in Ethiopia in the postwar years, the quest for high-yielding and rust-resistant cultivars continued to be one of the main concerns of wheat research in the country. This was among the main objectives of the US Point Four mission to Ethiopia, established in the early 1950s as a large technical assistance program of agricultural education, research, and extension.150 As part of this program, a team of US agrarian experts from Oklahoma State University developed a program of wheat research and experimentation at the “Central Experiment Station” in Bishoftu, located in the former headquarters of the ONC colonization center. The experimentation included a wide range of bread wheat cultivars from North America, France, and Italy, but the trials conducted in the course of the 1950s at the Bishoftu Station confirmed the conclusions that colonial agrarian experts had reached some fifteen years before in the same place. Only Kenyan cultivars performed well in both yield and rust resistance. In the following years, US agronomists concentrated their work on Kenyan wheats, leading to the release of six new cultivars between the late 1950s and the early 1960s.151
Thus, the colonial imaginary of wheat autarky greatly influenced the dynamics, evolution, and demise of the Italian East African Empire, and the attempted fulfillment of this vision left a tangible legacy in wartime and postwar Ethiopia. Italian agronomists introduced new practices, and subsequent actors followed their well-established path.
Rolland C. Lorenz (chief, Division of Agriculture USOM), “Report of Field Trip—Gondar—Bahar Dar—Asmara, 18–25/02/1960,” Classified Subject Files, 1953–1963 (P 247), b. 7, f. 1, RG 469, National Archives at College Park, Maryland (hereafter NARA 2).
See, for example, Scott Baldauf, “Market Approach Recasts Often-Hungry Ethiopia as Potential Bread Basket,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2007.
See for example Urbano, “‘Grandiose Future for Italian Somalia’”; Ballinger, “Colonial Twilight.” Although from a different perspective, one of the most comprehensive studies of Fascist agricultural policy in Ethiopia is Larebo, Building of an Empire.
Anglophone historiography translates the Italian term Battaglia del Grano either as “Battle for Grain” or as “Battle of Wheat.” This article opts for the latter version, owing to the specific meaning of the Italian word grano as “wheat.” In fact, the Battaglia del Grano almost exclusively revolved around the development of wheat production, rather than the production of grains more generally. On the Battle of Wheat, in addition to Saraiva, Fascist Pigs, and Nützenadel, “Dictating Food,” see Staderini, “La politica cerealicola del regime”; Segre, La “battaglia del grano”; Preti, “Per una storia agraria e del malessere agrario nell'Italia fascista”; Absalom, “Peasant Experience under Italian Fascism”; Grando and Volpi, “Backwardness, Modernization, Propaganda”; Carillo, “Agricultural Policy and Long-Run Development.”
See the recent historiographical reflection on the subject by Francesca Bray, Barbar Hahn, John Bosco Lourdusamy, and Tiago Saraiva, “Cropscapes and History.” There are numerous recent studies revolving around the historical role of nonhuman agents. On seeds and crops, see Curry, Evolution Made to Order; Fullilove, Profit of the Earth. On parasites and their vectors, see McNeill, Mosquito Empires; Snowden, Conquest of Malaria. On animals and their pathogens, see, for example, McVety, Rinderpest Campaigns.
Other than Saraiva, Fascist Pigs, see von Hardenberg, Monastery for the Ibex; Armiero and von Hardenberg, “Green Rhetoric in Blackshirts”; Armiero, Biasillo, von Hardenberg, La natura del Duce. On Fascist colonialism, see Polezzi, “Description, Appropriation, Transformation”; Denning, “Infrastructural Propaganda”; Biasillo, “Socio-ecological Colonial Transfers.”
Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, AOI) included Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.
Stefanini, “Le colture cerealicole dell'Impero,” 1301. All translations from Italian to English are by the author.
Similar claims were made by the British plant breeder Sir Rowland H. Biffen about the development of Kenya's agriculture in the 1920s. See Charnley, “Experiments in Empire-Building,” 292.
Stefanini, “Le colture cerealicole dell'Impero,” 1301–2. For a general history of food cultures in Italy, see Capatti and Montanari, Italian Cuisine; Scarpellini, Food and Foodways in Italy from 1861 to the Present. On the impact of the Fascist regime on Italian diets, see Helstosky, “Fascist Food Politics”; Helstosky, Garlic and Oil, 63–126.
Ertola, In terra d'Africa, 32. Albeit amplified by the speed and grandiose expectations of the Fascist conquest of Ethiopia, the question of high hopes followed by despair can be viewed as a leitmotif of many processes of colonial settlement and expansion. For example, a similar dynamic underpinned the first steps of Italian colonizers in Eritrea and Somalia in the 1890s and early 1900s. See Bruner, “Leopoldo Franchetti and Italian Settlement in Eritrea”; Urbano, “‘Grandiose Future for Italian Somalia.’”
In 1938, imports of wheat flour in AOI amounted to more than 1 million quintals. See the table “Importazioni alimentari in AOI” in Paolo Vicinelli, “Contributo allo studio di una economia agraria regolata dell'AOI, Parte 1—Valutazione degli elementi programmatici, 1940,” file no. 1765, Archives of the Istituto Agronomico per l'Oltremare, Florence, Italy (hereafter IAO Archives).
Governo Generale Africa Italiana, Sezione Affari Economici to MAI, January 25, 1940, Direzione Generale Affari Economici e finanziari, A-4, Archivio Storico del Ministero dell'Africa Italiana (hereafter ASMAI). See also Mezzetti to Teruzzi, November 25, 1938, Gabinetto del Ministro, “Archivio Segreto,” b. 157, “Ente Romagna d'Etiopia,” ASMAI. See also “Relazione della missione ministeriale degli agricoltori inviata in A.O.I.” to A. Lessona, n.d., box 20.4, “Viaggio in AOI: Diari e appunti di viaggio,” Archivio Tassinari, Accademia dei Georgofili, Sezione Contemporanea (1900–1960).
Massi, “La funzione economica dei cereali minori nell'AOI.” During the occupation, the cultivation of teff became a very important component of many farms and agricultural areas managed by the Italians. See Governo Generale AOI, Direzione Superiore Affari Colonizzazione e Lavoro, “Fabbisogno dei principali prodotti agrari e produzione agraria di varie regioni dell'AOI,” 1940, file no. 1925, IAO Archives.
See Maugini's biography in Ferdinando Bigi, “Il Prof. Armando Maugini.”
For more information on the history of the Colonial Agricultural Institute, now Overseas Agronomic Institute (Istituto Agronomico per l'Oltremare), see L'Istituto Agronomico per l'Oltremare, 79–111. See also De Robertis, “From Colonialism to Cooperation.”
Regio Decreto-legge, July 27, 1938, n. 2205, “Ordinamento del Regio Istituto Agronomico per l'Africa Italiana,” in “Ordinamento dei Servizi dell'Agricoltura nell'Africa Italiana,” L'agricoltura coloniale 33, no. 4, (1939): 209.
Maugini, “Conviene estendere la ‘Battaglia del grano’ alle colonie libiche?” On the experimentation of Strampelli's wheats in Libya, see Lorenzetti, La scienza del grano, 312.
See Ciferri's biography in Baldacci, “Raffaele Ciferri (1897–1964)”; Ciferri, “Frumenti e granicoltura indigena in Etiopia,” 347.
See, for example, Ciferri and Giglioli, “I Frumenti duri e Piramidali d'Etiopia.”
Vavilov, “Phytogeographic Basis of Plant Breeding,” 3738. Later studies on the matter corrected Vavilov's findings and revealed that the Ethiopian highlands were a great center of diversity but not a center of origin of the types of wheat and cereals analyzed by the Soviet scientist. See Tesemma, “Improvement of Indigenous Durum Wheat Landraces in Ethiopia,” 289.
Ciferri and Giglioli, “I Frumenti duri e Piramidali d'Etiopia.” See also Ramponi (Federazione Italiana Consorzi Agrari) to Regio Istituto Agronomico per l'Africa Italiana, “Analisi di grani indigeni dell'AOI,” March 4, 1940, file no. 853, IAO Archives.
“L'aratro abissino” (excerpt from Vitali and Bartolozzi, Strumenti agricoli indigeni dell'Africa Orientale Italiana), 538–45. See also Stefanini, “Le colture cerealicole dell'Impero,” 1303.
De Benedictis, “Schema di statuto’ per Centro di Sperimentazione agraria e zootecnica per l'AOI,” 1940, file no. 1323, IAO Archives.
De Benedictis, “Relazione sull'attività svolta dal Centro durante l'anno 1939,” January 14, 1940, file no. 1323, IAO Archives.
Piani and Carloni, “Primi risultati di un biennio di ricerche agrarie sperimentali nel Hararino,” Harar, February 1, 1939, file no. 594, IAO Archives. See also G. Battista Lusignani (Ispettore Reggente, Governo dell'Amara, Ispettorato Agrario), “Notiziario Agricolo del mese di 08/1938,” file no. 1334, IAO Archives.
John Percival to Giglioli, n.d., file no. 2139, IAO Archives.
Maugini to Unione Provinciale Fascista degli Agricoltori, Firenze, November 17, 1939; Ispettorato Provinciale della Agricoltura di Treviso (Ufficio di Montebelluna), “Prova di coltivazione di alcuni frumenti abissini provenienti dall'AOI nell'Azienda di S.E. il Governatore onorario Jacopo Gasparini a Venegazzù del Montello a Volpago,” August 17, 1939, file no. 2139, IAO Archives. See also Ciferri and Baldi, “Un primo saggio di coltura comparativa di frumenti dell'AOI nella collina toscana.”
“Ispettorato Generale Agrario (Addis Abeba) Promemoria al prof. Maugini,” file no. 1832, IAO Archives.
Valducci to Maugini, January 12, 1942, file no. 1838, IAO Archives.
Maugini, “Prefazione,” in Ciferri and Giglioli, I frumenti dell'Africa Orientale Italiana studiati su materiali originali, v.
Governo dell'Amara (Direzione Colonizzazione e Lavoro), “Relazione sull'attività svolta dalla sezione della Colonizzazione dalla data dell'occupazione al 28/02/1939,” Gondar, March 4, 1939, file no. 600, IAO Archives.
Piero Bono (Confederazione Fascista degli Agricoltori), “Promemoria sulla situazione attuale delle imprese agricole private in AOI e sulla necessità di urgenti provvedimenti,” February 1941, file no. 1837, IAO Archives. On the Pattuglie del Grano and the Centurie di Precolonizzazione, see “Federazione dei Fasci di Combattimento del Territorio dei Galla Sidamo, Le Pattuglie del Grano: 1° concorso’, 23/03/1937,” attached to Governo dei Galla e Sidama (Direzione Affari Economici e Finanziari) to Ministero dell'Africa Italiana and Governo Generale Addis Abeba, May 2, 1937, vol. 2, 181/68, ASMAI. See also Berretta, Con Amedeo d'Aosta in Africa Orientale Italiana, 55–56.
Governo Generale AOI (Direzione Superiore Affari Colonizzazione e Lavoro), “Fabbisogno dei principali prodotti agrari e produzione agraria di varie regioni dell'AOI,” 1940, file no. 1925, IAO Archives.
For an analysis of Italian labor dynamics in IEA, see Ertola, “‘White Slaves.’”
For example, in 1938 the Ente Romagna in Dabat was able to directly sow wheat on only three hundred hectares, while local farmers cultivated two thousand hectares of wheat in the estate as sharecroppers. See “Rapporto sull'Ente Romagna prodotto dal Residente di Dabat, postillato da Mezzetti,” Gabinetto del Ministro, “Archivio Segreto,” b. 157, “Ente Romagna d'Etiopia,” ASMAI.
Just in the Holeta colonization center, more than eight thousand villagers resided within and frequently worked in the ONC farm, along with around one hundred Italians. See Azienda Agraria Olettà, “Censimento indigeni che abitano sui poderi dell'Azienda,” n.d., ONC, Servizio Agrario, Aziende Agrarie e Bonifiche, AOI, b. 20, f. 148, Archivio Centrale dello Stato (hereafter ACS). For the Ente Romagna, see “Rapporto sull'Ente Romagna prodotto dal Residente di Dabat, postillato da Mezzetti,” Gabinetto del Ministro, “Archivio Segreto,” b. 157, “Ente Romagna d'Etiopia,” ASMAI.
See also SIMBA, “Rapporti fra la Società e gli agricoltori proprietari,” n.d.; SIMBA, “Agricoltura indigena,” n.d., file no. 1929, both in IAO Archives.
The type of seed depended on local availabilities, but generally it was imported Italian wheat. See Conforti, Impressioni agrarie, 126.
“Ente di colonizzazione Romagna d'Etiopia: Programma d'azione per l'anno 1939,” file no. 1921, IAO Archives.
The fixed minimum rate for the purchase of wheat was 120–130 lire per quintal, but in circumstances of absolute necessity the price could rise up to 230 lire per quintal. See Taticchi, “Relazione settimanale,” December 7, 1936, ONC, Servizio Agrario, Aziende Agrarie e Bonifiche, AOI, b. 1, f. 4, ACS. On the decision to not discriminate between national and indigenous wheat growers for the price of their produce (quite uncommon in other colonial contexts of that time, and in fact strongly opposed by some Italian farmers), see Confederazione Fascista degli Agricoltori, Ufficio Coloniale to MAI, January 12, 1940, Direzione Generale Affari Economici e finanziari, C-2, ASMAI.
The region of Amhara was the greatest producer of wheat in that year (350,000 quintals), followed by Shoa (200,000 quintals) and Harar (125,000 quintals). See Ciferri and Bartolozzi, “La produzione cerealicola dell'Africa Orientale Italiana.”
Verona, “Il grano Mentana nel primo anno dell'Impero,” January 15, 1937, file no. 854, IAO Archives.
Taticchi, Relazione settimanale, May 29, 1937, ONC, Servizio Agrario, Aziende Agrarie e Bonifiche, AOI, b. 4, f. 26, ACS; “Attività sperimentali degli agricoltori privati dello Scioa nel 1939,” n.d., file no. 1324, IAO Archives.
Ciccarone, “Relazione sulla Missione del Dottor Ciccarone alle concessioni cerealicole del comprensorio di Aselle,” October 16, 1940, file no. 1328, IAO Archives.
A. Ciccarone, “Relazione sulla missione del Dr. Antonio Ciccarone nel territorio di Ambò,” November 20, 1940, file no. 1329, IAO Archives.
Fuzzi to Maugini, January 16, 1941, file no. 1921, IAO Archives.
Borruso (Regia Residenza di Ada) to Azienda Agraria ONC and Azienda Ente Romagna d'Etiopia, “Segnalazione passaggio cavallette,” May 8, 1939, Ente di colonizzazione Romagna d'Etiopia, b. 14, f. 113, ACS.
Valducci to Maugini, January 12, 1942, file no. 1838, IAO Archives.
“SIMBA: Generalità e programmi di massima,” n.d., file no. 1929, IAO Archives.
“Attivita’ svolta dalla costituzione ad oggi nel Commissariato di Harar,” n.d., file no. 1813, IAO Archives.
SIMBA, “Rapporti esistenti tra la Società ed i coloni,” n.d.; SIMBA, “Agricoltura indigena,” n.d., file no. 1929, IAO Archives.
Pavirani to SIMBA, Aselle, November 4, 1940, file no. 1929, IAO Archives.
Pavirani to SIMBA, Ahow selle, November 4, 1940, file no. 1929 IAO Archives.
Ciccarone, “Relazione sulla Missione del Dottor Ciccarone alle concessioni cerealicole del comprensorio di Aselle,” October 16, 1940, file no. 1328, IAO Archives; Ciccarone, “Relazione sulla missione del Dr. Antonio Ciccarone nel territorio di Ambò,” November 20, 1940, file no. 1329, IAO Archives.
Ciccarone, “Relazione sulla missione del Dr. Antonio Ciccarone nel territorio di Ambò,” November 20, 1940, file no. 1329, IAO Archives.
This was true especially in the case of the SIMBA estate, which was almost entirely cultivated with Mentana. See Ciccarone, “Relazione sulla Missione del Dottor Ciccarone alle concessioni cerealicole del comprensorio di Aselle,” October 16, 1940, file no. 1328, IAO Archives.
Faranji was a term used in Ethiopia and elsewhere to indicate white, European people. Castellani, “Problemi fitopatologici dell'Impero,” 11.
See the list of participants to the International Congress of Tropical and Subtropical Agriculture in Federazione Internazionale Tecnici Agricoli, “Organizzazione e svolgimento del congresso, 13–16.
B. Bruschi, “La coltivazione del cotone al Mozambico,” 1939, file no. 1511, IAO Archives.
Carlo Branzanti to Maugini, “Missione per lo studio della cultura del caffe’ al Congo belga: Rapporto del mese di gennaio” (Mulungu nel Kiwu, Costermansville), February 3, 1938; Branzanti to Maugini, April 2, 1938, file no. 1029, IAO Archives; Cappelletti and Cerrina Feroni, La cotonicoltura nel Congo Belga.
Stonehewer-Bird, February 16, 1938, FO 371/22020; Stonehewer-Bird to Foreign Office, August 31, 1938, FO 371/22022, UK National Archives (hereafter TNA).
Taticchi, Relazione settimanale, May 29, 1937, ONC, Servizio Agrario, Aziende Agrarie e Bonifiche, AOI, b. 4, f. 26, ACS.
Taticchi, Relazione settimanale, April 30, 1937; Balconi to Taticchi and Sede Centrale ONC, June 27, 1937, both in ONC, Servizio Agrario, Aziende Agrarie e Bonifiche, AOI, b. 4, f. 26, ACS.
Fagotti (Direttore dell'Azienda Agraria di Biscioftù), “Relazione dell'anno agrario 1937,” n.d., file no. 1338, IAO Archives.
It is worth noting that Italian cultivar Rieti (Strampelli's main source of germplasm for his hybrids) was among the first bread wheat varieties imported to Kenya. See Dixon, “Review of Wheat Breeding in Kenya,” 210.
Manusia, “Programma da effettuarsi al campo di orientamento di Biscioftù,” 1939, file no. 1323, IAO Archives.
Fuzzi to Battaglia, November 23, 1939, Ente di colonizzazione Romagna d'Etiopia, b. 14, f. 111, ACS.
Taticchi, “Relazione 12/1940 and 01/1941 sulle coltivazioni, 30/01/1941,” ONC, Servizio Agrario, Aziende Agrarie e Bonifiche, AOI, b. 14, f. 77, ACS.
Valducci to Maugini, January 12, 1942, file no. 1838, IAO Archives.
J. G. Hamilton, “Wheat Situation in Ethiopia,” March 27, 1943, FO 922/104, TNA.
On the MESC, see Wilmington, Middle East Supply Centre.
F. de V. Joyce to M. Lush (deputy chief political officer), December 12, 1941; F. de V. Joyce, “Agricultural Machinery,” n.d., Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, Papers of F. de V. Joyce, MSS Afr. s. 2157, b. 12. For more information on the composition and activities of Italian agricultural experts employed by the British in Eritrea in the 1940s, see file no. 788, IAO Archives. See also Rennell, British Military Administration of Occupied Territories in Africa, 134.
C. H. Willson (FAO representative to Ethiopia), “Ethiopia and FAO Technical Services, 09/1947–03/1948,” June 24, 1948, series G3, “Missions to Ethiopia: Reports by Experts, 1948–1956,” RG 71.20, Archives of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
On the Point Four program in Ethiopia, see McVety, Enlightened Aid, 121–60. See also Gill, History of International Programs at Oklahoma State University.
Gentry, Wheat Research. On the history of wheat research breeding in Ethiopia, see Gebre-Mariam, Tanner, and Mengistu Hulluka, Wheat Research in Ethiopia.