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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960

First Steps for the Foundation of the FAO

In May 1943, just in the midst of the critical situation of a world economy conditioned by World War II and particularly by the obstacles to food trade, availability and rationing, the United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, invited representatives of 44 countries to meet in Hot Springs, Virginia, to discuss post-war plans for rebuilding and meeting the challenges of a world in need. One of the most important issues on the agenda was the idea of a serious improvement of food and agriculture, or in the words of the conference delegates, “a secure, adequate, and suitable supply of food for every man”. The Hot Spring delegates created a working group commissioned to draft a proposal for the creation of a permanent international organisation that would deal not only with food and agriculture but also with forestry and fisheries. Once the project was accepted within the framework of the UN organisations, the International Institute of Agriculture ceased its operations in 1945, at the end of the war.[1]

On October 16, 1945, representatives of 34 nations signed the charter of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Sir John Boyd Orr, a man with experience in the political management of scientific knowledge on nutrition, was then appointed the first FAO Director General. Boyd Orr (1880-1971) had been a Carnegie research fellow in physiology and in 1914 arrived in Aberdeen to take the lead of a new Institute on Nutrition. During World War I he served as a physician that challenged the reality of malnutrition and poverty, evident in the poor physical condition of many of the army’s recruits. Upon his return to Aberdeen, Boyd Orr was determined to complete the institute and investigate the role of nutrients, minerals and vitamins in animal health. In 1925, interested in the diets of farm animals and humans in other parts of the world, he embarked on journeys to Africa, the Middle East, New Zealand, Australia and India. He later discovered that milk added to the diets of children in Scotland and England led to gains in height and weight, becoming increasingly concerned with British food and agriculture policy. His research culminated in the publication of Food, Health and Income, an unprecedented and very influential introduction to food policy, inspiring directly the British food-rationing system during World War II.

In 1931 he founded the journal Nutrition Abstracts and Reviews, becoming chief editor of the publication. Notwithstanding that his duties were time consuming, he was still able to direct fundamental research in nutrition, primarily in animal nutrition in the early days of the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen. His influential Minerals in Pastures and Their Relation to Animal Nutrition (1929) was published in this period. In the 1930s, however, after extensive experiments with milk in the diet of mothers, children and the lower social groups of the population, and after large-scale surveys of nutritional problems in many nations all over the world, Boyd Orr’s interests swung to human nutrition, not only as an experimental physiologist but also as an active worker for the instruction on healthy diets for people everywhere. His aforementioned report, Food, Health and Income (1936) revealed the “appalling amount of malnutrition” among the population of England, regardless of economic status. His surveys and criticism about the negative effects of deficient nutrition on human development and health conditions became the basis for British policy on food during World War II, which he helped to formulate as a member of Churchill’s Scientific Committee on Food Policy, a successful programme that has been discussed in a previous chapter. At the end of the war, Boyd Orr, aged 65, and already retired from the Rowett Institute, accepted three new positions: he was appointed Chancellor of Glasgow University for a three-year period; he also occupied a seat in the Commons representing the Scottish universities; and he was also appointed to the post of Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations when it was founded.

  • [1] The Library of the FAO was named the David Lubin Memorial Library in honor ofthe founder of the IIA. It keeps the personal archives of Lubin and the documents,technical reports and publications of the IIA. The Western Jewish History Centre ofthe Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley (California) has a large collection ofpapers, correspondence, publications and pictures of David Lubin.
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