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

Food Consumption Targets for 1960

Among the basic ideas that led to the creation of the FAO, food production targets related to nutritional requirements and the health of a population were of special significance. The Hot Springs Conference (1943) distinguished two kinds of targets: first, governments were urged to adopt as their ultimate nutritional goals “dietary standards or allowances based upon scientific assessment of the amount and quality of food, in terms of nutrients, which promote health”. Secondly, it drew the attention of governments to the need for more immediate consumption goals, “which necessarily must be based upon the practical possibilities of improving the food supplies of their populations”.[1]

According to the commitments expressed in its constitution, the FAO was established with the general goal of raising nutritional levels throughout the world. As we have just discussed, the 1951 WFS established a series of very detailed targets related to food production, trade and consumption of all types of food. Those targets were considered to be a compromise between what might be desirable from the standpoint of nutrition and what might be feasible in practice. The targets were a consequence of this central point and feasibility was a permanent condition. They tried to represent quantities and patterns of food supplies, which, if made available, would improve the levels of nutrition of the people consuming them. It was therefore essential to adopt certain nutritional principles, considering practicability and feasibility, so that in general the targets represented a compromise between the nutritionally desirable and the analysis and recognition of hard existing facts and problems. The specific targets referred to particular aspects of human nutrition such as caloric intake, animal and vegetable protein and other nutrients, as well as food groups: animal origin, pulses, vegetables, fruit, cereals, starchy roots, fats and oils and sugar.

The 1951 WFS targets tried to establish a meeting point between the science of nutrition and the organisation of food production. It tried to discuss not the ideal nutritional goals for 1960 but rather the general direction that improvement should take.

Some targets demand so large an increase in production that their achievement calls for the most determined efforts. Further, these efforts must cover a wide field, including within their scope such measures as the reform of systems of land tenure, provision for agricultural credit, appropriate adjustments in land taxation, the fostering of cooperatives and the development of extension services. In many instances possibilities of attainment will be influenced by price levels, purchasing power and the readiness of people to change consumption habits. It is clearly impossible to consider each article of food in each individual country, and decide on the chance of its production being increased and its distribution improved in the light of all relevant circumstances, many of which are unpredictable and imponderable.41

The FAO experts recognised that national governments were in a better position to assess the influence of the relevant conditioning factors than the experts of any international organisation. The establishment and achievement of satisfactory targets indeed represented a challenge both to national governments and also to FAO technicians, calling for a collaboration that required exchange of information and common work. An Expanded Technical Assistance Programme was settled to formulate plans for further implementation.

In the field of food production, the FAO experts established a series of goals open to criticism, which proposed changes and adjustments in national and world food supplies. Considering 1960 as a deadline, the targets were likely to succeed only if the following assumptions were made:

  • a) There would be no major world war or similar disasters.
  • b) Average climatic conditions would continue to prevail.
  • c) The volume of international trade will at least not decrease and such trade would continue to have roughly the same relationship to production as at the present.
  • d) National plans and programmes to develop food production would be pushed forward vigorously.
  • e) Technical advances in methods of food production and their application in practical terms would be accompanied by simultaneous advances in other fields, such as social, educational, economic and administrative improvements.
  • f) International assistance to under-developed countries, both technical and financial, would continue to increase.

Those were the 1960 targets for Europe regarding the calorie intake:

Targets for calorie supplies measured against requirements for 1960

European countries

1960 targets

Estimated requirements










































































United Kingdom








Achieving the targets meant an adaptation of food production, trade distribution and food consumption to the estimated population for 1960. To these estimates, the FAO expert committees added allowances for processing and wastage from the stage of production to the retail stage, and for the quantities that would be used for animal feed, seed, manufacturing and other non-food purposes. Many of those allowances were admittedly speculative, since the pattern of crop utilisation for feed and non-food purposes in 1960 could not be accurately predicted. In making those predictions, account was taken both of the present and pre-war patterns of utilisation and the additional supplies needed to meet the targets for livestock products. The estimates considered national food production - more imports, less exports - because if imports and exports were balanced for the world as a whole, global food supplies should bear some relation to world food production.

Globally speaking, the estimated increase in gross supplies that were needed to attain the targets was far in excess of the estimated increase of the population, particularly for pulses and livestock products. However, “to achieve the targets, it is vital that the largest increase in production should occur in the areas where the need is the greatest”.42 At best, the surplus areas could provide only a small fraction of the needs of the major deficit regions. These needs could only be met almost entirely from their own production and therefore a great expansion of the food supply was required, especially in the Far East, Near East and Africa. In these regions, the increase in the supply of cereals had to be twice as large as the expected increase in the population, while for pulses, milk, meat, eggs and fish the increase had to be proportionally even greater. In

Latin America and Europe, except for pulses, the increases called for were smaller, but the estimates for livestock products called for a level of expansion that was substantially greater than the estimated population increase. Obviously, the targets did not represent the full satisfaction of nutritional requirements. If they did, the increases called for in the supply of many foods, especially livestock products, would be much larger and far in excess of what could be achieved by 1960 under the most favourable conditions.

In most of Europe, chiefly in Western Europe, post-war recovery had greatly outpaced the increase in the population, especially with regards to the production of sugar, cereals and potatoes, but also in the turn towards livestock products in the 1950s. A large part of Europe’s food requirements, however, had to be met by food imports. Unless such imports were heavily expanded, Europe’s own food production had to continue to climb at a rate far exceeding the growth in population. This particularly applied to livestock products, the consumption of which had still not attained pre-war levels.

A few questions were discussed by the FAO experts but no clear solutions were proposed: could fish culture be expanded and to what extent? Have the efforts made so far - to increase yields per hectare and per animal through the use of more and better fertilisers; new irrigation systems; improved methods in animal husbandry and fishing; and land reforms and the like - achieved much higher yields than those duing the pre-war period? These were considered crucial for a substantial increase in food production. Regarding the expansion of food crops, in Europe the extension was lower in 1951 than it was in the pre-war years. On the other hand, if a substantial increase in farmed area had been required in under-developed and food-deficient areas of the world, an immense amount of capital investment was also be required, especially for irrigation and drainage.

Conversely, increasing crop yields appeared to be more feasible. In the more advanced countries, yields per hectare had increased over prewar levels through greater mechanisation, more fertilizers and new technologies. In Europe, even among countries where yields were already high due to intensive production, some noteworthy increases had been achieved. Wheat yields were mentioned as being 10 per cent or more above pre-war levels in Belgium, Denmark, Western Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. To some extent this was due to cultivation being confined to more favourable land. For the most part, however, the rise in food production was the result of using more and better fertilisers and improved agricultural techniques.

From a worldwide perspective, achieving a substantial increase in the output of livestock products remained one of the most important long-term problems, especially in the less developed regions. The 1952 WFS stressed that when crops are fed to animals instead of directly to humans they lost between 80 and 90 per cent of their caloric value before they produce animal calories. But the prospects for 1960 considered that to a large extent animal and crop production should be deemed complementary rather than competitive and a mixed system of farming gave better results for both.

In many areas of the world animals still constituted the main form of draft power without which crop production would seriously suffer. The 1951 survey considered that in many countries the output of livestock products could be at least doubled, without detriment to the production of food crops, by applying better crop rotations, improving grassland unfit for cultivation, using more efficient crop residues for inedible byproducts, and by reducing livestock losses from diseases and parasites. Western European countries were presented as a model to follow as they had attained that with much less reliance on imported feeds than before the war. Milk and meat yields per animal had risen steadily by about two per cent per annum during the last years before 1950 and in a number of European countries they appreciably exceeded pre-war levels.

As a realistic assessment, FAO experts considered that despite the immensity of the problem, progress was possible if all potentially productive resources - land, farm machinery, fertilisers - were fully mobilised. They appreciated the increasing attention given by national governments to the implementation of agriculture development programmes, research and extension work focused on the farmers as an encouraging sign. But they considered that the scale of the effort still remained inadequate, much below that needed if the 1960 targets were to be attained.

It has indeed become increasingly clear that development programs, land reforms, the setting up of research stations and training schools, agricultural co-operatives and the like, are only the framework within which expansion in production may be possible. They cannot by themselves assure the accomplishment of the task, unless the individual farmers, who are ultimately responsible for food production, are convinced by demonstrations and results of the value of the best techniques appropriate to their circumstances. A tremendous expansion in extension and demonstration work is needed if existing knowledge is to overcome the deep-rooted traditions, prejudices and distrust of farmers whose primitive methods have often remained unchanged for many hundreds of years. For this reason, the Sixth Season of the FAO Conference called on all Member Governments a) to establish adequate extension and demonstration services which are brought down to the level of the man on the land linked with local administration and education in their own countries; b) to ensure that the necessary supplies and equipment are available for effective demonstration work; c) to promote where necessary the development of pilot schemes and subsequently demonstration areas in the organizational development of small farmers on a group basis; and d) to provide adequate services to ensure the improvement of home economics in rural areas.43

The expansion of trade and the shaping of an efficient and steady world trade market was without doubt a necessary step, but for the FAO experts the primary obstacle to the improvement of the diet of the many millions who still suffered from under-nutrition and malnutrition was their low economic status and the lack of purchasing power. For any population living at bare subsistence levels, food choice was severely limited and even non-existent. Their foremost need was just to satisfy hunger and obtain enough calories in the form of energy-yielding foods. Under those circumstances, real dietary improvements could scarcely take place without economic development. It was only when minimum calorie requirements were satisfied that serious attention could be given to other aspects of dietary improvement: “Where the simple need is for enough food to keep alive, nutritional balance is often largely of academic interest”.44

Conversely, the FAO experts considered that much could be done to improve the diets of populations living at intermediate economic levels, not oppressed by extreme poverty. Being poor is the essential factor of hunger, but faulty food habits arising from deep-rooted traditions, prejudice and ignorance were considered to be responsible for much malnutrition as well.

A serious deficiency disease called beriberi is found in Asia and elsewhere among people whose staple food is highly milled rice, which has been deprived of the essential vitamins because of the mechanical milling of the grain to a high degree. Although the solution of the problem obviously lies in avoiding the use of such rice, there are several obstacles, mainly of a social and psychological character. People accustomed to highly milled white rice do not take kindly to other kinds of rice, such as under-milled and parboiled rice, which are more nutritious but less attractive to the eye and the palate. Many other examples of social or cultural obstacles could be quoted. These may be religious taboos, such as those which prohibit eating meat from the cow or the pig, or they may be individual and collective prejudices, e.g. against the consumption of milk, fish, eggs and so on. Sometimes the taboo or prejudice is not related to the consumption of particular foods but to their production or distribution. For example, raising vegetables is considered as an inferior occupation in some areas and is

therefore undertaken only by immigrants. Another important obstacle to improving diets is the difficulty of popularizing new and unfamiliar foods. General experience indicates that such popularization, while by no means impossible, inevitably takes time. The speed and nature of proposes dietary changes, however desirable these changes might be from the nutritional standpoint, must necessarily be adjusted to prevailing food habits.[2]

The need for an integrated approach - national, regional and international - was pointed out in the 1952 WFS. In the less developed

areas, the vicious circle of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, disease and

physical inefficiency was not broken in the 1950s. The international experts stressed that people were less tolerant with hunger and famine, and danger of social upheaval was real.

Land reforms must be planned not only to remove injustices that have made progress impossible, but also to ensure that farming efficiency is preserved and increased, and that the transition to new systems of land tenure is made without a disruption of the country’s economy. Agricultural programs must be closely linked with nutritional policy to ensure that the right kinds of food as well as enough food are produced. They must be closely coordinated with plans for industrial development to attain a balanced expansion in the country’s economy, including a growing interchange of products between farm and city. Finally, steady advance in these fields cannot be assured without a parallel advance in many others, including education, health and hygiene, housing, transport and the like.[3]

The diagnosis for the 1950-60 decade was based on planning, modernisation and public control. In a world with a growing population, and a growing multiplicity and complexity of wants and needs, where land and natural resources were still ample in relation to population, modern techniques could be applied. In Europe, the experts considered that national units had become too small for full advantage to be taken of modern forms of industrial organisation and techniques. National protectionism and trade barriers had brought about diminishing results to a point at which economic standards could scarcely be maintained. In this context, greater pooling of resources, technical innovation, scientific knowledge and experience had to take place within the whole region. National plans and programmes had to be coordinated within a regional framework to ensure that output was expanded; trade and other restrictions within European regions had to be reduced to a minimum to obtain a ready market for increased production.

This integrated approach claimed for the European population was similarly essential at the international level. Available expert knowledge could not benefit the less advanced regions unless the natural resources of these poor countries were more efficiently mobilised. However, development programmes required capital investment on a scale far beyond the resources of individual countries, and especially for those living under the poorest conditions. Since private organisations could not lend funds and assume risks, international collaboration was needed to ensure the orderly marketing of foodstuffs at reasonably stable prices. Steps had to be taken to avoid the dangers of recurrent world food shortages and, in the same direction, special efforts were necessary to mobilise great food surplus regions to meet the urgent needs of the deficit areas. International machinery and immediate relief when famines arise were considered necessary.

In the industrially developed countries, the trend of declining birth rates came to a halt in the early 1930s, and was sharply reversed during the years following the world economic depression and in the post-war years.47 This change was responsible for an exceptional upsurge in the population of developed countries, which was considered to persist until 1960. In densely populated and less developed areas, the potential effect of modern medical technologies (preventive methods, vaccination, antibiotics, etc) on the population was expected to be enormous and to have a direct effect on demographic growth:

The accumulated knowledge available to medical science and the technical facilities at its disposal has, however, made it possible to reduce mortality rates far more rapidly than was possible in the past. Because “mass diseases” like malaria, tuberculosis, etc... affect such a high proportion of these populations, the control of these diseases alone, now possible at relatively little cost, can bring about a striking reduction in mortality. For example, in Ceylon the death rate, recently reduced mainly by successful measures against malaria to nearly one-half of its previous level, now approaches the death rate prevailing in industrialized countries. Similar results are being achieved elsewhere. Since, however, birth rates are still in the main determined by longer-term factors relating mostly to economic and social attitudes, they are not susceptible to equally rapid change.48

The FAO expert report alerted to the possibility of a rapid increase in the world population. They considered the problem could be eased by improved efficiency of successful health measures. In some cases, an increase in food production was achieved entirely through improved

  • 47 Ibidem, p. 35.
  • 48 Ibidem, p. 36.

efficiency following successful attacks upon disease. A global mentality would emerge that included the belief that better-off countries must assist the comparatively poorer nations, not merely for humanitarian reasons, but also to safeguard their own living standards. This also required a greater understanding, to some extent translated into action, of the need for integrated planning at all levels to achieve higher living standards for people all over the world.

  • [1] Second World Food Survey, 1952, p. 17.
  • [2] Ibidem.
  • [3] Ibidem, pp. 33-34.
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