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

The Second World Food Survey (1952)

After the two surveys on the state of food and agriculture published in 1948 and 1949, a second World Food Survey was published by the FAO in 1952, showing, once more, a critical picture of the world food situation. The survey touched on three aspects in particular: food production, trade and consumption. Thus, the 1952 World Food Survey showed the overwhelming interest of FAO experts in the importance of increasing food production in areas previously ravaged by the war and in the growing numbers of newly independent countries - India, Pakistan and Indonesia being some of the early states to gain independence in the late 1940s.

But by 1950 concern over growing grain surpluses in richer countries increased, in part due to rapid agricultural recovery in Europe and Japan. Therefore an early divide between the rich and the poor regions in the world emerged. This converse situation and its substantially different challenges made these countries - the FAO’s main source of funding - question the organisation’s emphasis on increasing production in the face of surpluses.

To start with, Norris E. Dodd, the FAO Director-General, qualified the First World Food Survey of 1946 as the first major accomplishment of the FAO since its creation. Several years later FAO authorities thought it necessary to gauge the progress made towards the previously defined objectives and discuss the prospects for the future. The Second World Food Survey was essentially concerned with the same basic questions, now examined in the light of changes that had occurred in the post-war years and available knowledge. Nevertheless, the general assessment advanced by Norris E. Dodd was far from being optimistic: The new information gives no ground for complacency. The average food supply per person over large areas of the world, five years after war was over, was still lower than before the war. The proportion of the world’s population with inadequate food supplies has grown appreciably larger. World food production has indeed expanded since the end of the war, when it fell to a low point, but much of this achievement represents merely a recovery from wartime devastation and dislocation. Clear signs of any far- reaching changes in the entire scale of food production, essential for the improvement of nutrition on a wide scale, are lacking. Annual increases in food production are barely keeping pace with the increasing population. The intensification of health measures in under-developed countries, in particular the use of new methods for controlling mass diseases such as malaria, is likely to lead to a still more rapid growth in numbers. Further, since the Second World War birth rates have been relatively high in most of the well-developed countries, including those which at present produce surplus food. The whole demographical picture, though still imperfectly understood and interpreted, adds a note of urgency to the task of expanding world food production.[1]

All these facts, taken together, were interpreted by FAO authorities as scarcely presenting an encouraging picture of the world situation in 1952. The low level of food production in the less developed regions of the world, and the wide disparities between food consumption in these areas and in the more advanced countries, had long been recognised as outstandingly grave aspects of the world’s food and agricultural situation. The effect of World War II was to aggravate these problems acutely. Destruction of livestock, farm machinery and buildings, and storage and processing facilities had occurred on an immense scale, whilst soil reserves and in certain cases agricultural manpower were seriously reduced. Most fishing grounds were closed and the best craft were converted for war purposes. Important sources of supply and trade distribution were cut off. The immense burden of supplying the Allied Powers with food and other requisites for the war effort fell upon the few areas in which supplies were accessible, especially those in which the output could be increased rapidly. Under these parameters, post-war dependence on the surpluses from North America and Oceania emerged and the world food situation during the post-war years was essentially that of an exhausting struggle to increase agricultural production all over the world, and to restore some balance in the patterns of production and international trade. From a purely technical perspective, success was possible, but it had been obstructed by political interference, crisis in foreign exchange mechanisms, the negative influence of recurrent shortages of raw materials and other means of production.[2]

The figures for 1946-1947 showed a heavy decline in grain, potatoes and sugar production in Europe, a fall in rice production in the Far East and an increase in grain and sugar output in North America. Taken as a whole, the change in global yield per hectare was the major factor. In Europe, the cumulative wartime shortages of fertilisers depleted soil reserves to the point of exhaustion, sharply reducing yields. The pattern of livestock production emerging from the war was broadly similar to that for crops, with heavy losses in cattle, pigs, and sheep, especially in Europe, but also in many parts of Asia. The supply of livestock products in food deficit areas was affected more deeply than that of vegetables, and the overall food shortage was so severe in certain areas that little grain could be spared for feeding livestock. The majority of the increased feed grain and livestock output in the surplus areas had to be retained to supply an increasing population, whose demand for meat and other livestock products was steadily expanding. The early post-war shortage of livestock products, especially meat and eggs, was particularly severe in Europe.[3] The shortage was responsible for large and widening margins between prices paid to farmers for grain and those prevailing for meat and eggs on the free and black markets.

The following table shows the evolution in food production per caput in the various world regions since the end of World War II, according to the FAO survey:

Indices of Total and per Caput Production of Food Crops37


Average 1946-1947

Average 1949-1951


Per caput


Per caput






North & Central America





South America





Far East





Near East















World (excl. USSR)





Source: Second World Food Survey, Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1952

The table shows that in many parts of the world the per caput food production in 1951 remained below pre-war levels. A few countries, such as the United Kingdom and Japan, largely dependent on food imports, had managed through strenuous efforts to increase domestic food production. Recovery was generally greatest in the regions that had suffered the steepest declines during the war. Aided by more abundant fertilisers, increased supplies in farm machinery and other agricultural innovations given aid under the Marshall Plan, Europe was able to make the most impressive recovery. By 1950-51 the agricultural production in OEEC countries, considered as a whole, was more than 10 per cent above pre-war levels. Fish production recovered fast, and by 1950 the capacity to produce fish was larger than ever, although in Austria and Germany, the division into different zones of occupation, territorial changes as a consequence of the war and other political and economic factors delayed recovery. Food production in Eastern Europe immediately after the war was much lower than in Western Europe, and so was the recovery in most of the countries in Eastern Europe. Conditions of chronic food shortages in countries of Southern and Eastern Europe were frequent.

Competition between the demands for agricultural resources for direct human food and for feeding livestock characterised much of the struggle for recovery in post-war years. According to the international

37 The eight main crops are: wheat, rye, barley, oats, maize, rice, sugar and potatoes.

surveys, this competition was particularly severe in Europe, where programmes for expanding the area had to be repeatedly abandoned or postponed to prevent recurrent food shortages, sometimes reaching dangerous proportions. Countries were compelled to seek economies by finding alternative and less expensive foodstuffs, improved silage and more efficient methods of feeding and handling grassland. These strategies led to higher milk production per animal in the early 1950s.

  • [1] Second World Food Survey. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UnitedNations, 1952.
  • [2] Ibidem, p. 3.
  • [3] Ibidem, 1952, p. 4.
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