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The First World Food Survey (1946): the Pre-war Food Picture and Strategies for the Short Term

The First World Food Survey published in 1946 was prepared by two working groups, one in charge of nutrition targets and the second devoted to reporting on the food consumption before the war. Two working groups were appointed, with the following experts:

  • 1. Nutrition targets:
    • - Boudreau, Frank, G. Executive Director of the Milbank Memorial Fund, New York
    • - Cassels, John M., Office of International Trade Operations, Department of Commerce, Washington
    • - Maynard, John M., School of Nutrition, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
    • - Miranda, Francisco, Director of National Institute of Nutrition, Department Public Health, Mexico DF
    • - Phipard, Esther F., Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics, Department of Agriculture, Washington
    • - Roberts, Lydia J., Director Home Economics, University Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
    • - Stiebeling, Hazel K., Chief Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics, Department Agriculture, Washington.
  • 2. Pre-war Food Consumption:
    • - Becker, Joseph A., International Commodities, Office Foreign Agricultural Relations, Department of Agriculture, Washington
    • - Gibbons, Charles A., Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Department of Agriculture, Washington
    • - Klatt, Werner, Senior Statistician, Ministry of Food, London, England
    • - Knight, H.V., Senior Statistician, Ministry of Food, London, England
    • - Malenbaum, Wilfred, Special Assistant to the Director, Office of Intelligence, Coordination and Liaison, Department of State, Washington
    • - Peter, Hollis W., Head of Food and Agriculture Section, International, Functional, and Intelligence Division, Department of State, Washington

- Wells, O.V., Chief, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Department of Agriculture, Washington.

The expert committees examined the information available for 70 countries in the pre-war period and they observed great variations both in the calorie intake and in the dietary patterns among the population in these countries. The reports indicated that the food supply of over half of the world’s population furnished an average of less than 2,250 calories per caput per day. At the other extreme, less than a third of the world’s population had an intake of more than 2,750, and the rest, affecting about one sixth of the world’s population, were between these two levels. The high calorie intake areas included most of the Western countries, Oceania and the USSR, but only three countries in South America.4 The medium-calorie regions included most of the Southern European countries, three countries in Asia, a part of the Middle East, a part of Africa and a part of South America, whilst the low-calorie regions included most of Asia, a part of the Middle East and all of Central America. Some parts of South America and Africa were not included in the survey due to the absence of reliable records. With this data it was easy to come to the conclusion that the world food situation was in dire straits. The experts stressed the fact that the average calorie intake of a country served as a general guide only and that it was important to understand that some people obtained considerably more than the average, while a large number had less; even in the countries with the highest rates of calorie intake a considerable part of the population was not well nourished in accordance with health standards.

The areas of greater deficiency were Central America, most of Asia and probably many parts of South America and Africa not covered by the survey.

Many of the low-calorie countries are located in the tropics and subtropics. In these countries, food energy requirements may be lower than in colder countries. The average body size of the people is usually smaller. Demographically, the proportion of children in the population is usually greater as well, due to high birth and death rates. These factors, however, cannot account for the great difference in the per caput daily calorie intake between the lowest and the highest-intake countries. A population with a high percentage of children, for example, would require 100-150 fewer calories per person per day (but relatively more minerals and vitamins) than a population with an aging demographic profile now typical of Western civilization. As noted earlier, the actual difference is around 1,000 calories per person per day. Calorie intake in the low-calorie countries is only two-

thirds of that seen in high-calorie countries.5

It was evident in the first WFS that before the war about half of the world’s population was subsisting at a level of food consumption that was not high enough to maintain health standards, allow for normal growth of children, or furnish enough energy for normal work. Poor nutrition was associated with high death rates and a low life expectancy, high infant and child mortality, increased susceptibility to many diseases such as tuberculosis and impaired working capacity.6

In addition to calorie intake, the composition of diets showed great variation that depended on food habits and the availability of food supplies. Obviously, when the average calorie levels were around 3,000 or more, diets were generally balanced. The United Kingdom, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany were in this group. In all these countries the consumption of cereals in relation to that of other foods represented about 1,000 calories, while milk and meat consumption were comparatively high, with animal protein accounting for about 50 grammes.

This dietary pattern contrasted sharply with that of countries where the average total calorie supplies were around 2,000 calories or less. This group included Far East countries such as India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Korea, as well as some Middle East countries (Iran, Iraq, and Transjordan), Central America (Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica) and South America countries (Colombia). In this group of countries a high proportion of calories was obtained from cheaper foods rich in carbohydrates, especially cereals. The evidence put forward by the first WFS was clear: that poverty was the chief cause of malnutrition. The survey compared pre-war calorie consumption with national incomes per capita, and all the countries in which the supply of calories was less than 2,250 per person per day were countries in which the average income was less than $100 per caput per year.

Once the world food consumption had been examined by groups of countries and world regions, the next step forward was to set up nutritional targets that showed the changes in food supplies, which were considered necessary to provide the population with a better and healthier diet. The spread of dietary standards for international application became one of the fundamental concerns of the FAO and the WHO during the post-war years. In the USA, the recommended daily [1] [2]

allowances of the National Research Council were widely accepted and applied by official agencies. However, the experts considered these standards provisional as they represented the consensus of experts at a given time and were subject to modification, as was scientific knowledge itself.7

In practical terms, in those countries, regions or social groups where food consumption was considered to be quantitatively adequate, the so- called optimum standards could be applied as a target, to determine the changes in food supply that were needed to improve the quality of national diets. In many of the countries with a medium calorie intake, and especially in all those with low intake rates, consumption goals had to be set considerably below the optimum levels, if they were to be achieved in a reasonable amount of time and at the required proportion. Those intermediate steps were considered to be milestones or intermediate goals that generally improved world nutrition.

A small group of nutritional experts convened by the FAO in 1946 to discuss the question of targets took as a point of reference the pre-war standards, agreeing that weight should be given to the 1946 position regarding the production and supplies of various foods. Targets called for the modification of existing dietary patterns rather than for revolutionary changes. They suggested the following principles:

  • a) A calorie intake between 2,550 and 2,650 was to be considered a minimum level to which intake should be raised and the quantities of additional foods required should be estimated on this basis.
  • b) If calories from cereals fell between 1,200 and 1,800, no change was recommended, but if they fell below 1,200 and the total calorie intake was below 2,600, some increase in cereal intake was recommended, unless the total calories from cereals, starchy roots, tubers, starchy fruits, sugar, fats, and pulses exceeded 2,000 to 2,100. If calories from cereals exceeded 1,800 and total calories were high, decreasing the former was considered the best solution.
  • c) An intake of 100 to 200 calories from starchy roots, tubers and starchy fruits (such as bananas) was set as a desirable objective, although a larger amount was advocated if intake of cereals was low and adequate amounts of protein could be obtained from pulses, milk, meat and fish.
  • d) Intake of sugar should not exceed 10 to 15 per cent of total calories.
  • e) Total daily calories from fats should be at least 100 and preferably 150 to 200.
  • f) In countries where pulses constituted an important part of the diet, calories from this source could reach 250 to 300 daily. Meat supplies in these countries were under 150 calories and animal proteins limited. Even when meat calories amount to 200-250, calories from pulses might be pushed to 200-250. Pulse intake should be considered in relation to the intake of cereals, starchy roots, tubers, starchy fruits, milk and meat.
  • g) Calories from fruit and vegetables should total at least 100 per caput daily. Leafy green, yellow vegetables and fruit rich in vitamin C were the best option, with the recommended quantities calculated in relation to their nutritional value: their vitamin and caloric content.
  • h) Meat, fish and eggs should amount to no less than 100 calories per caput daily and preferably 150 to 200. If the intake of milk and pulses was high, the contribution of fish and meat calories could be proportionally reduced to balance each other.
  • i) The minimum desirable level of consumption of milk and milk products was calculated between 300 and 400 calories per caput daily. Milk consumption as well as intake levels could be compensated by a combination of pulses, leafy green and yellow vegetables, providing important nutrients of milk.

On the basis of the criteria proposed by the FAO Nutrition Committee, and according to the principles of the experimental science of nutrition, specific targets were drawn up for 18 areas. This covered 70 countries, in terms of total calorie intake and calories from various food groups, taking into consideration pre-war standards of consumption in each of those countries and areas, for purposes of comparison.

Because of the great variation in existing consumption and in the nutritive value of national diets, it was considered impracticable to put forward targets calling for a uniform degree of nutritional adequacy. In countries in which food supplies were insufficient in quantity as well as unsatisfactory in quality, the first step was to consider the increases in food supplies necessary to raise calorie intake to a reasonable level of sufficiency. Targets for countries in which pre-war food supplies yielded less than 2,600 calories per caput daily have been adjusted to bring the calorie level to 2,600 (plus or minus 50). For countries with calorie supplies above this level, adjustments were made to improve the quality of the diet while the same energy value as in the pre-war period was maintained.8

In the WFS, the experts stressed that improving nutritional quality was more necessary than increasing total food supplies; a satisfactory distribution of food and a change in food habits was considered a priority as well. Countries with inadequate food supplies were called on to obtain the additional food needed to raise nutritional levels by importing from other countries, increasing their own production or a combination of both. Great Britain represented the first case in the postwar period, since the supplies produced by its own agricultural activities could not meet the requirements of the population. It was able to satisfy its needs by exchanging goods and services for food from other countries. A meaningful expression of this policy is that during the war the United Kingdom increased its food production by about 70 per cent in terms of calories due to an adequate policy of rationing and food management.

Although many thought that international trade would become increasingly important after 1946, much of the additional supplies required by the low-calorie intake countries to reach the consumption goals would have to be obtained by expanding their own food production. In most of the less developed countries people lived mainly on a vegetarian diet, which often lacked sufficient quantities of proteins, important vegetables and fruit, and therefore the targets required diets containing more foods of animal origin. Yet this issue was not free of controversy. Nutritional experts introduced the term original calories, to mention calories yielded by crops. When crops were used to feed animals instead of being eaten directly by humans, about seven of these original calories were required to produce one calorie from animal products.9

As the experts believed that by 1960 original calories would have to be increased by 90 per cent in comparison with the pre-war value, with 55 per cent of this increase accounted for by improvements in the diet and 35 per cent by population growth, improvements in farming efficiency were seen as being essential to meeting their goals. The instruments needed to face the challenge included more efficient fertilisers, better varieties of crop plants and seeds, plague and parasitic control, efficient tools and new machinery. This was summarised as a need for better land use all over the world.

The political dimension of the programme was evident and a worldwide agricultural reform was deemed to be the only solution: land ownership, funds, technical improvement and price regulation were some of the issues discussed by the international experts as being central to the economic reforms required to solve the international crisis after the war:

Since food production is the most important aspect of the whole economy and way of living of most peoples, a wide range of economic and social changes will be involved in making extensive improvements. For example, unjust and oppressive systems of land tenure which give the cultivator neither opportunity nor incentive to improve his lot will need to be swept away. Since most methods of increasing food production necessitate an outlay of capital, satisfactory systems for supplying credit to farmers are essential; in most countries they do not exist. The capacity of the farmer to develop his land depends to a large extent on the price of primary agricultural products; he must therefore obtain a fair return for the food he produces, and consumers must have the purchasing power to give him a fair return.10

Increasing individual productivity was identified as being at the heart of the problem. Some European countries had a large population in relation to land area and enjoyed relatively high standards of living because their production of wealth in the form of goods and services was relatively high. In some European countries a fifth of the population was devoted to agriculture, producing foodstuffs that were capable of supplying around 8,000 calories per caput daily: one farm family could feed itself and four other families at a comparatively high nutritional level. If new technologies were applied this proportion would improve. By contrast, in many poor countries, two thirds or more of the population produced an inferior diet of 2,800 to 3,000 original calories for the country as a whole, and one farm family managed to produce only enough to feed itself and half of another family.11

Land resources for agricultural production were limited, and when population growth was high, rural underemployment and inefficiency were inevitable. This critical situation prompted experts to call for rapid, large-scale development of industry and trade, as well as the implementation of instructive programmes oriented to peasants and farmers and the modernisation of all services involved. To do this, a large investment of both capital and technical skills was needed. “All nations will gain by world advances in human health and wellbeing and in production and trade, and all must participate in bringing them to pass”.12

The experts mentioned the enormous achievements of a significant number of Western nations during the war as proof that improvements in technical tools and skills, as well as great economic expansion, were [3] [4] [5]

realistic. However, during the post-war years, the need for adequate international action was considered to be not only convenient but also necessary to avoid a regression to the trends of the 1930 crisis. Altogether, between 1929 and 1939, the world failed to deal with the situation created by the application of science to agriculture and was unable to absorb the increased food supplies thereby made available. The WFS partly attributed this to disorganisation in food production, instability and fluctuations in the whole economic system. Solutions could not come from separate initiatives of individual nations acting alone and from attempts to deal with commodities separately, without global coordination. Food experts were convinced that unilateral action would inevitably worsen the general situation, creating barriers, new problems and competition instead of complementation.[6]

The political economy of scientific knowledge required global governance and new directions: “After the failure of the World Economic Conference in 1933, a new approach was developed in the international sphere. The science of nutrition had advanced far enough to make it possible to define with some accuracy the kinds of diets needed for health, and it had become clear that the greater part of the world’s population was getting far less than good nutrition required”.[7]

As has been discussed in a previous chapter, in 1935 the Assembly of the League of Nations authorised the League to report on the effect of improved nutrition upon health and the relation of nutrition to agricultural and economic problems. In the years that followed the Mixed Committee on Nutrition of the League of Nations reviewed these problems and urged governments to develop food policies that would improve nutrition, especially in the lower income groups, and simultaneously reduce agricultural surpluses. As a result, a number of nations established national nutrition organisations to advise governments on policies for nutritional improvement. However, the war interrupted the initiative before much progress was made.

At the end of the war it was clear that a food crisis had swept the world. The food situation rapidly deteriorated and the experts foresaw that the shortages of fats, meat, dairy products and sugar would remain acute for a considerable amount of time; the supply of grain was seriously insufficient at the end of 1945. Among the main causes that led to this shortage were obviously the devastation produced by the war, but also the serious dislocation of the world agricultural economy and trade and the war’s dismantling of the world’s transport system. The series of droughts from 1945-46 added to the negative context, becoming culminating factors.15 Moreover, the post-war food crisis was expected to last. To address the situation and minimise the effects, an International Emergency Food Council was set up to replace the Combined Food Board, the result of a Special Meeting on Urgent Food Problems called by the FAO in May 1946. Although local governments and nations were forced to take immediate decisions to solve short-term problems, it was evident that global food policies required international action. The First World Food Survey (1946) supported the idea that the world’s needs required planning and organisation in the field of production, trade, marketing and finance, which neither producers nor nations acting by themselves could carry out. The experts supported the arguments contained in the Proposals for a World Food Board, the first big disappointment in the implementation of a globally managed political economy of food and hunger after World War II.

  • [1] Ibidem, p. 8.
  • [2] Ibidem.
  • [3] Ibidem, p. 22.
  • [4] Ibidem, p. 24.
  • [5] Ibidem, pp. 24-25.
  • [6] Ibidem, p. 27.
  • [7] Ibidem, p. 28.
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