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The Global Politics of Food and Hunger

From the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA) to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) The Origins of the International Institute of Agriculture

The International Institute of Agriculture, the forerunner of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), was created in 1905 following the initiative of David Lubin (1849-1919). With support from King Vittorio Emmanuele III of Italy, his dream of an international agricultural organisation to bring some order to agricultural production and trade organisation all over the world became reality. The work of the IIA over a 40-year period proved to be useful for the establishment of an international transdisciplinary referent of technical work around food, agriculture and nutrition, especially in critical periods.

David Lubin was born in Klodowa, Poland, on June 10, 1849. He was a merchant and agriculturalist, who possessed exceptional entrepreneurship to run ambitious projects. Like many other Polish citizens, his family emigrated first to England in 1853 and then to the USA when he was only six years old, living in New York initially and then in Sacramento, California. It was in Sacramento that he started a prosperous career with his cousin Harris Weinstock, setting up a successful One Price Store known as the Weinstock-Lubin Company. While in Sacramento, he bought a fruit ranch and land for wheat cultivation. He felt drawn to agriculture and immediately understood its huge importance for the global economy and future of humankind. His interest in agriculture prompted him to get involved in the foundation of a farmers’ union called California Fruit Grower’s Union. He also helped in the settlement of Eastern European Jewish refugees who worked on various farms in California, and in 1891 he became the head of the International Society for the Colonization of Russian Jews. The aforementioned details point to the profile of an active man, a global thinker full of ambitious initiatives.

Absolutely involved in farming, agricultural production and trade, he was very active in campaigning for subsidies and protection for farmers, not only on a local scale in California, but also on an international level. He soon developed a proposal for an international chamber of agriculture and, following the same project, in 1896 he travelled to Europe for the first time with the aim of establishing contacts to implement the idea of an international agriculture organisation. According to his project, this institution was to act as an international research and technical organisation and an intergovernmental consulting body. It was also to provide farmers across the globe with a means to improve productivity, innovative technology, new methods of cultivation and helping to control the fluctuations of the prices. His proposal established a cooperative system of rural credit, exerting some control over the marketing and trade of agricultural products. In 1904 he travelled to Italy and had an interview with King Vittorio Emmanuele III about his idea. The Italian king was keen on the initiative and set the wheels in motion by bringing the idea to the attention of the Italian government.

One year later an International Conference in Rome (May, 1905) decided on the foundation of the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA), with sponsorship from the Italian King Vittorio Emmanuele III. Forty states confirmed they would engage with the new international agency and David Lubin became the USA’s permanent delegate to the organisation in 1906. He died in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, and in 1946 the IIA was dissolved and its functions and assets transferred to the newly founded FAO, under the umbrella of the recently set up United Nations.[1] In the meantime, the IIA developed a great deal of technical work, sometimes in collaboration with other international organisations such as the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization, and influence on agricultural policies characterised the IIA activities in the inter-war period.

At the end of World War II the defeat of the Axis and the victory of the Allies gave way to a new period characterised not only by the end of the international conflicts and catastrophic wars, but also by the start of a new international order. Priority was given to the idea of founding a new order in the world, in accordance with the political ideology of the victor forces, free of war and the economic, social chaos and inequality that marked the big crisis in the 1930s. Already during the war, the Declaration of St. James’s Palace in 1941, the United Nations Declaration of 1942 and the Dumbarton Oaks Conference of 1944 were international agreements preceding the formation of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. Held in 1944, the Breton Woods Conference prepared the ground for a post-war economic order through the creation of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) and an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD-World Bank) in 1945, and later for the International Trade Organization, a portion of which emerged in 1947 as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In 1943 a total of 44 governments committed themselves to creating a permanent global organisation for food and agriculture in Hot Springs, Virginia.

At least three major issues dominated the post World War II landscape. The first and more urgent necessity of the international community was post-war reconstruction and reestablishment of global order. There were major concerns about rebuilding destroyed infrastructures and restoring agricultural production from a global perspective, but especially in the regions most badly affected by the consequences of the war in Europe and Asia. A second challenge was creating a global mechanism to promote peace, an international space of political negotiation and agreement to overcome disputes, prevent war, create international public goods, improve health and promote an exchange of technical expertise. The third major concern regarded the creation of a functioning and effective international economic system, avoiding fluctuations and big crises, which recognised national sovereignty over economic policy but also became the referent of an international framework promoting international cooperation, facilitating trade through a managed exchange rate regime, working for the reduction of trade barriers and facilitating long-term capital transfers.[2]

The authorities shared serious worries about post-war food shortages, famine and rural poverty becoming extremely high. The main causes identified were the destruction of the productive capacity of many societies, the damage to a transport system at national and international scales, and the loss of technical capacity for many countries in agriculture, including their access to basic seeds and other necessary inputs. Shortages and famine immediately became a serious problem. Food security debates, as well, were dominated by concerns about inadequate production. Thus, the creation of the FAO, which occurred early in the aforementioned process, first focused on assessing the food situation, projecting what would be needed to stave off starvation and recommending how the necessary increase in the world food production could come about.

  • [1] Hobson, A., The International Institute of Agriculture, Berkeley, University ofCalifornia Press, 1931.
  • [2] McCalla, A.F., FAO in the Changing Global Landscape. Working Paper No. 07-006,Davis University of California, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics,2007.
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