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

Boyd Orr and the Failed World Food Board

Notwithstanding Boyd Orr’s long experience in the field of nutritional policies, his time as the first FAO Director-General was very short. Both practical and political reasons made him resign just a few months after his appointment. In 1946, under the aegis of the FAO, an International Emergency Food Council was founded in Copenhagen, representing 34 member nations and commissioned to address the postwar food crisis and discuss the global programme. The central issue was the creation of a World Food Board, a technical commission to oversee the purchase of surplus food from food-exporting countries and the delivery of the surplus to countries in need, which would then pay back the food loan through various agricultural activities. He travelled extensively throughout the world trying to get support for a comprehensive food plan and was bitterly disappointed when his proposal for the establishment of a World Food Board failed in 1947, when neither Great Britain nor the United States voted for it. Boyd Orr became convinced that the FAO could not, at that point, become a spearhead for a movement to achieve world unity and peace without the support of the global powers, and therefore resolved to resign as Director-General.

In 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, and the principal merit stated was his efforts to eliminate hunger in the world. However, he donated the prize money to the National Peace Council, the World Movement for World Federal Government and various other philanthropic organisations. In the years following the Second World War Boyd Orr was associated with virtually every organisation, acting for world government, in many cases devoting his efforts, skills and influence to the cause.

In the years preceding World War II as much as a third of the population of the United Kingdom suffered from poverty-induced malnutrition, a factor influencing poor health. Nutritionists saw the insufficient consumption of milk and fresh fruit as the main cause. Taking this hard reality for a modern and rich country as a starting point, John Boyd Orr came to advocate the establishment of an agricultural economy of abundance, described in his 1936 publication, Food, Health and Income. Orr’s investigation on the interactions between food, health and income constituted a major contribution to the field of the political economy of nutrition. The study attracted the attention of world leaders in terms of their responsibility to satisfy food production needs on the global level.

On July 5, 1946, the FAO Conference met in Washington and approved a document presented by Director General J. Boyd Orr, containing the proposals for the creation of a World Food Board (WFB). The proposal had to be submitted to the Second Session of the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization, to be held in Copenhagen on September 2, 1946. The document was a schematic analysis of the critical situation of food and nutrition, consisting of 12 pages where the long-term problems of nutrition and agriculture, the inter-relationship of nutrition and agriculture with industry and trade and the economic advantages of a world food policy based on human needs were discussed. According to Boyd Orr’s analysis, to reach this goal, purchasing power had to be generated. In the context of the existing inter-governmental organisations - commodity organisations for producers and United Nations organisations - a WFB could coordinate actions. The document summarised the structure, operations and actions for short-term and long-term perspectives.[1]

When the FAO was founded in 1945 it was generally assumed that with the policy of cooperation and mutual aid of the temporary international organisations dealing with food, the European nations would be able to cope with emergency situations and the critical circumstances arising after the war. Reasonable agreements between the governments involved would allow the FAO to implement a global food policy. In February 1946 the United Nations’ General Assembly called on the governments and international agencies concerned with food and agriculture policies to make special efforts in this direction. Under logical expectations to coordinate international policies on food, considering the positive call from the UN, in May 1946, the FAO convened the aforementioned Special Meeting on Urgent Food Problems, which was held in Washington. The special meeting requested Sir John Boyd Orr, Director General, to prepare a set of proposals for dealing with long-term issues. Immediate problems of emergency food supplies were the first concern at that critical moment, but the meeting also called for the analysis of long-term issues related to the production, distribution and consumption of food and agricultural products, including the risk of surplus build-ups.[2]

The technical report prepared by Boyd Orr started by recognising that there had never been enough food in the world to satisfy human necessities. Before the war there were 1,000 million people consuming less than 2,250 calories.[3] At the lower levels of intake, the food mainly consisted of cereals, which were the cheapest satisfiers of hunger in most areas of the world, but a balanced diet had to contain a large proportion of animal products, fruit and vegetables. Since food consumption depends on people’s purchasing power, as family income rises, the consumption of more expensive foodstuffs increases. Before the war the diet of about the poorest third of the population in the United States was estimated to be below the levels of a healthy diet owing to insufficient consumption of animal products, fruit and vegetables. Full employment and high wages during the war increased the consumption of these foodstuffs, particularly of eggs and milk, whose consumption increased by 30 per cent.In the United Kingdom, in spite of the national food shortage, the consumption of certain foods of special value for health rose substantially.[4] As food consumption is directly correlated with health, as the diet deteriorates, health and physical abilities decline, as well as life expectancy. The remarkable betterment in health following improvement in the diet showed that inadequate food was one of the main causes behind preventable diseases, misery and premature death.

The general situation after the war was the great opportunity for Boyd Orr to realise the dreams he had mentioned in his address at the first FAO Conference in Quebec just after his election as the FAO Director-General. The central point was the constitution of a World Food Board, a proposal that Orr submitted to the FAO conference at its second session, the one previously mentioned, held in Copenhagen in September 1946. The proposal aimed to prevent the impact of the deep interwar crisis, the negative effects of the war and post-war shortages: the dramatic fall of agricultural prices and incomes, the general economic slump and the fast rise of large-scale unemployment, as a source of widespread depression and massive poverty. Boyd Orr was convinced that food was something more than merely a commodity, and the World Food Board was not only to be an international trade regulator. Its vocation was mostly to end hunger through a threepronged system: one part dealing with credit given to nations to increase food production; another to regulate prices of agricultural products with buffer stocks of key commodities; and a third one to distribute famine relief. Boyd Orr’s logic was clear and evident: “There is no measure which would contribute more to human welfare than the application of a food policy based on human needs...”[5] With food and nutrition being essential human rights, as well as an element for political and social stability, he was convinced of the moral obligation to provide food for the hungry poor. If nations were not able to agree on a food programme affecting such a basic right, he was very pessimistic about the hope of the international community to reach agreement on anything else. As fate had it, his worst presages came true.

International reports and technical surveys during the war and in the early post-war years on nutrition and health suggested that the more income increased, the more morbidity and mortality decreased, children development was easier, adult stature got higher and general health and social indicators improved. Hunger and health raised important economic and political questions. The political dimension of hunger and health came across the contradiction that there was not a single national agency or government department. The politics of hunger and the political management of the new knowledge on nutrition were considered by Orr to be essential for the improvement of the health and welfare of the nation, but also a fundamental factor for the politics of justice and the practical implementation of human rights.

The plan for a World Food Board included several dimensions regarding the political economy of food, nutrition and hunger. The first major problem was producing sufficient food not only to feed the expanding world population, but also to feed people according to new scientific patterns of healthy diet, and this implied changing dietary habits and traditional patterns. Advances in agricultural technologies had helped increase the world production of foodstuffs. However, the fast population growth in some regions gave rise to a tough political challenge: ensuring an adequate production and distribution. Scientific knowledge and farming technologies could improve production and give a boost to an increasing industrialisation of food, but distribution was really the main economic and political challenge. Other collateral effects such as the lack of regulations for food quality and systems to fight adulteration had to be avoided as well. But at the end of World War II the idea that industrialisation could be a tool to compensate for unemployment, and particularly underemployment in agriculture, was widely accepted.

The production of foodstuffs led to different types of problems depending on the agricultural pattern. In most developing countries, food was produced on very small holdings and traditional farming techniques were followed. The kernel of political action in these cases consisted of providing peasants with jobs in other industries and educating them in modern methods of cultivation and equipment for technical modernisation. On the contrary, in countries where modern technologies were already applied, the main problem was finding stability for the market and guaranteeing remunerative prices. This had become a problem in the 1920s, appallingly expressed in wartime, when rising prices had to be controlled to avoid maladjustments and cyclical oscillation. Uncontrolled fluctuations in prices hindered agreement on a common price for agricultural products on the world market. This phenomenon resulted in the necessity to ensure a world market for exportable surpluses at stable prices to protect availability for the lower income sectors of the population or for the poor countries. Price variation was not unfair but also an economic problem, as the low purchasing power of food producers was a constricting factor for the development of a market for industrial products. Conversely, reducing industrial prosperity and the purchasing capacity of industrial producers limited the markets for agricultural products.

The volume of trade was also considered to be a core factor for the future of human nutrition and the prosperity of agriculture.[6] A long-term policy on nutrition, health, food production and agriculture was most challenging, as the interests of agriculture, trade and public health in the post-war years had to be reconciled. Food was considered to be a tradable commodity, but it was also an essential element of human rights and life itself. Therefore, the establishment of a World Food Board spelled out the economic advantages of a world food policy based on human needs: if any governments assumed the responsibility to improve the level of nutrition of its nationals up to the scientific standards of a healthy diet, an expansion of food supplies would take place even in the richest countries. This was, certainly, what member nations agreed to do when accepting the FAO’s constitution, adjusting agricultural policies to that end. To reach this ambitious goal, the additional food production required was so great that it could only be implemented if production were progressively coordinated on a worldwide scale. Global coordination involved farming diversification, concentrating on the more perishable foods owing to their special value for human nutrition and health, such as wheat and sugar, which could be grown in areas where they were best adapted for production, since they were easily stored and transported.

Rhetorical arguments in favour of a World Food Board were evident and unquestionable. The expansion of agriculture would accelerate the development of mechanisation and would expand the market for agricultural equipment of all kinds, for fertilisers, and for facilities linked to food storage and shipment. In poor countries, the need for technological improvement was urgent in agricultural techniques, irrigation, food control and quality regulation, drainage systems and land reclamation. The capital requirements for the great expansion needed for the global development of agriculture would help to sustain industrialisation and contribute to employment. Prosperity in agriculture would also increase demands in consumption among agricultural producers. A world food policy, based on and dimensioned for the fulfilment of human needs, would provide a programme for agriculture and trade, contribute prosperity and be the point of departure in achieving the humanitarian goals proclaimed by the leading authorities of the United Nations.

The scientific knowledge on nutrition, the innovative technologies in agriculture and the demographic conditions to set off the global economic expansion were already available, but consumption was only possible if people’s purchasing power was increased in the same measure as food production. In many developed countries governments had taken steps to bridge the gap between the price of food integrating an optimum diet and the purchasing capacity of the population. However, poor countries and other regions devastated by the war were unable, in practical terms, to give access to a healthy diet to the most damaged sectors of the population. Some financial arrangements, such as supplying capital equipment involving deferred payments and longterm credits to the countries concerned, would lead to the development of natural resources. This world food policy was to be applied according to the proposal put forward by the League of Nations’ Committee on Economic Depression. It was not only credit for development purposes that had to be given, but a solidarity fund also had to be allocated to countries in great nutritional need and suffering from shortages and malnutrition. This was required if they wanted to purchase the agricultural surpluses of other nations on special terms and conditions.

Once the need for a World Food Board and its field of operation was accepted, a question remained unanswered: what were the terms of operation of the new institution? Was there to be a new international board or could existing international organisations for specific products such as sugar, rubber, tea, minerals and others be pooled together? Such existing organisations were born as a consequence of the depression and lacked an overall agency coordinating all the strategies for the expansion of an inclusive worldwide perspective. The initiatives had been mostly plural. Further developments during World War II were the creation of an Inter-American Coffee Agreement (1940) and the creation of the International Wheat Council (1942), composed of Argentina, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.[7] Other countries were also invited to participate in an international agreement for submission to an international conference. On the other hand, the governments of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom had set up a Joint Organisation in 1946 to undertake the marketing of accumulated wool surpluses; other initiatives were linked to cotton production and trade.

All existing and projected commodity councils suffer from two important

defects, both due the same cause - the need for a more comprehensive organization. First, when each commodity is considered in isolation it is impossible to contemplate certain remedies and opportunities, which are feasible when commodities are considered jointly. Secondly, when commodity councils are not part of a larger organization, they lack the financial resources, which would enable them to hold stocks, bring stability to existing markets, and develop new ones.11

During the war the United Nations prepared to set up a number of international bodies, establishing the FAO for studies and recommendations on developments in the field of food and agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Its technical advisory services were concerned with a wide range of scientific, technical, economic and statistical problems involved in the improvement of production and distribution. As we already know, an International Bank was established by the United Nations to assist in providing funds for the large investment needed for agricultural and industrial development, a concept including health, education, working conditions, funding and trade. From this perspective, UNESCO, the WHO, the ILO, the IMF and the ITO [International Trade Organization], were among many international agencies created. The Economic and Social Council was internationally responsible, and again the ILO was specifically concerned with improving wages and assisting in alleviating the balance of payment difficulties of member countries, which in itself was considered to be a major contribution toward mitigating international trade obstacles. In addition to this, there were proposals for the creation of an International Trade Organization, which contemplated international machinery for encouraging a progressive reduction in trade barriers, the elimination of restrictive business practices and actions in the field of commodity policy.12 Apart from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which were designed to facilitate the solution of financial problems on an international level, the functions of the international organisations were limited to the accumulation and interpretation of facts, the production of technical reports, the summary of information and surveys and the issuing of recommendations. No single organisation or combination of them had the capacity to take measures and transform recommendations into action, since they had neither authority nor funds for taking coordinated international action.

In addition to the FAO and the proposal of a World Food Board, a series of temporary organisations were created to deal with the food scarcity caused by the war. As mentioned, the International Emergency [8] [9]

Food Council, working through commodity committees, encouraged the stabilisation of prices by reaching agreement on price schedules and by promoting unified buying, recommending the allocation of export surpluses according to the needs of different countries. The UNRRA also managed funds to provide food and agricultural implements, fertilisers and other supplies for the rehabilitation of war-devastated countries. The proposal of a permanent World Food Board was more ambitious and established a permanent executive agency.

A continuation of this international cooperation is needed because if these

temporary organizations bring the world out of the present food emergency, there will still remain the great scarcity of food that existed before the war and at the same time the agricultural problems of fluctuation in prices and the accumulation of unmarketable “surpluses”.[10]

In order to solve the lack of coordination, the World Food Board had to be given the necessary authority and funds to confront the long-term problems of world food security. Whether as a new agency or integrated into the FAO structure, it would be appointed by the FAO Conference that included representatives of all countries. Commodity committees were to be the operating bodies. Since the World Food Board was to face great problems relating to the world economy and finance, it was thought necessary to include representatives of other international organisations.

The project presented by J. Boyd Orr to the FAO Copenhagen Assembly attributed four main functions to the WFB:

  • 1. The stabilization of the prices of agricultural commodities in the world markets, allowing for the necessary funds for stabilising operations.
  • 2. The establishment of a world food reserve, adequate for any emergency that might arise through crop failure in any part of the world.
  • 3. The provision of funds for financing the disposal of surplus agricultural products on special terms to countries where the need for them is most urgent.
  • 4. The cooperation with other organisations concerned with international credits for industrial and agricultural development, and with trade and commodity policy, in order to facilitate that their common ends might be more quickly and effectively achieved.[11]

For the stabilisation of prices, the WFB would operate through its committees to hold stocks of the most important commodities. The

Board would announce a maximum and minimum price and would undertake to buy into its stock when the world price fell below the declared minimum and sell from its stock when the world price exceeded the maximum. Price stabilisation appeared to be one of the main aspects of its policy. A revolving fund to operate such a policy would be needed, although since the agency would normally buy at its minimum price and sell at its maximum price, it was expected to earn enough to cover the cost of storage. The most general and important objective of the strategies of the World Food Board would be to ensure that sufficient food was produced and distributed to bring the consumption of all populations in the world up to a health dietary standard. Technical reports showed that the need for additional food was so great that if human requirements could be translated into economic demand, there would be no surpluses of the basic products. The fundamental problem in 1946 was to increase the purchasing power of the population unable to obtain sufficient food to satisfy their needs, with the main duty of the Board being to divert surpluses to these consumers and arrange for financing for the cost of selling at prices that the consumers were able to afford.[12]

The need for immediate action was recognised in the creation of the WFB, a call for action summarised in the FAO approved Proposals with the following words: “There are only two alternatives for the nations today: either cooperation for mutual benefit in a world policy, or a drift back to nationalistic policies leading to economic conflict which may well be the prelude to a third world war that will end our civilization”. Consequently, the WFB was presented as the main instrument for global stabilisation.

But the Copenhagen Conference did not follow up on any of John Boyd Orr’s substantive recommendations in a truly effective manner, and the proposal for a World Food Board slowly disintegrated and disappeared off the agenda in favour of national interest. Orr was acutely disappointed at what he regarded as the failure of his attempt to establish a world authority of global governance with full competence to embark on the path that would ensure that all people of the world were adequately fed. Soon after this failure he resigned as the FAO Director- General. Orr had given the FAO an ambitious start, and as its beneficial work in the task of improving world agriculture and nutrition became more widely realised, some of his proposals that were previously rejected were eventually incorporated into the organisation’s programme.


Nevertheless, despite a later attempt made by others in 1949, the project of a World Food Board was never resuscitated. However, he continued to believe until his death that the plan would have to be taken up again.

In 1948 John Boyd Orr made a clear statement that spelled out his ideas about the political dimension of hunger and food. He made a global assessment of the problem in a lecture that was followed by an interview and summarised in a newspaper for the general public:

Not more than 20 to 25 percent of the population of the world enjoy food, shelter, and clothing on a health standard and have the environment needed to promote intellectual and cultural development. Today the masses who have never enjoyed the environmental conditions necessary for a full life are realizing more and more that the poverty which has cramped their existence is no longer necessary; it was not ordained by God that they should be born to poverty and be content with poverty as their lot in life. In Europe, men will no longer tolerate seeing land going out of cultivation while their children lack food, or factories idle while their families live huddled together in disease-ridden slums. But it is in the underdeveloped countries

that the greatest adjustment must and will take place...17

But access to enough food did not mean healthy nutrition. Several technical reports indicated that even in the best fed countries, between 20 to 30 percent of the population lacked food for a healthy, balanced dietary standard. Poverty and cooking traditions were to be blamed. In the underdeveloped countries much of the population, even before the war, suffered from food shortages and at times from actual starvation. If sufficient food should have been produced during the post-war years to feed all mankind to healthy standards, a great expansion of agriculture in all countries would have taken place. Even in the United States and in the United Kingdom, the production of the more expensive foods - animal products and fruit and vegetables - was not considered to be enough and an increase from 15 to 75 per cent was calculated.

In the late 1940s Boyd Orr argued that, considering the food problem in its global dimension, the production of the most expensive foods would need to be nearly doubled.18 Under those circumstances, the role of industrialisation of food production appeared as a nuclear point and probably the only realistic prospect. The necessary amount of food could not be produced without an enormous quantity of industrial production, not only of agricultural implements and fertilisers but also, for example, of capital equipment for irrigation and flood control and for the improvement of the means of transporting, storage and food preservation. The increase in the social level of the peasantry was essential, since food would not be produced “unless the man on the land has a standard of living comparable to that of workers engaged in other industries”.19

The political economy of hunger and food was born at the end of World War II within the context of a dramatic landscape, one in which state governments and international organisations were called upon to save mankind from the huge risks lying ahead: science, technological power and moral and intellectual degradation.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was established to enable nations to work together in carrying out a world food plan... The Two World Wars marked the convulsive end of an era. The atomic bomb, which fell in Hiroshima was both the death kernel of a passing age and the herald of the birth of a new age. This crisis in our civilization is due to modern science, which has advanced more in the last forty years than in the previous two thousand years. The great forces which science has let loose are pushing man into the new age for which he is ill prepared, morally and intellectually.

The issue which he must now face is whether he will use science to destroy human society, or realize that the only hope of survival is the acceptance of the futility of war, and effective cooperation among nations to build a new civilization in which man can attain a level of physical and spiritual wellbeing beyond the dreams of the Utopians.20

The First Session of the Conference of the FAO, held in Quebec (October-November, 1945) established a primary objective for the organisation: to improve the levels of nutrition throughout the world, in order to ensure not only that all the population was out of any danger of starvation and famine, but also that they obtained the kind of diet essential for maintaining health.21 To fulfill this target, a Nutrition Division was created in 1946 and a Standing Advisory Committee on Nutrition was convened to advise the Director-General of the FAO on the organisation’s nutritional activities. At its first meeting, the broad lines of the FAO’s nutrition programme were laid down.22 The Standing

Advisory Committee on Nutrition also met in 1947 and 1948 to review the progress made and to recommend further projects and activities.

  • [1] Proposals for a world food board and world food survey. World Food Program,1946, Washington, FAO, World Food Program. 1946.
  • [2] Report of the special meeting on urgent food problems, Washington, FAO, 1946.
  • [3] World Food Survey, Washington, FAO, 1946.
  • [4] Proposals, 1946, p. 2.
  • [5] Orr, J.B., Food: The Foundation of World Unity, London, National Peace Council,1948.
  • [6] Proposals, 1946, p. 6.
  • [7] Shaw, J., World Food Security. A History since 1945, Hampshire, PalgraveMacmillan, 2007, pp. 22-23.
  • [8] Ibidem, p. 23.
  • [9] Ibidem.
  • [10] Proposals, 1946, p. 10.
  • [11] Ibidem, p. 11.
  • [12] Ibidem, p. 12.
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