World Food Surveys (1946-1960): Economy, Science, and Politics

At the end of World War II millions of people suffered from starvation and malnutrition was widespread in many regions in the world. Many of those who were undernourished were simply not getting enough food, yet a significant number of them were not really suffering from hunger at all; they were just not receiving the diet they needed for optimum health. FAO experts recognised in their first World Food Survey that vague knowledge confirming the existence of such a situation was not enough: “Facts and figures are needed if the nations are to attempt to do away with famine and malnutrition”.1 The issues that required more definite information in order to take practical action that would eradicate hunger, famine, nutritional diseases and malnutrition were: food consumption, food needs, shortages (ways to address these and other problems within a reasonable time) and adequate food production to satisfy global needs.

One of the FAO’s early pieces of analytical work, which resulted in one of its first publications, was the first World Food Survey, published in 1946, just a few months after the end of the war.

Given the complete breakdown of statistics during the war, the approach used was to estimate a baseline of pre-war calorie availability and compare them with postulated minimum nutritional standards. The baseline conclusion was that over half of the world’s population had access to less than 2,250 calories per day; one-third had access to over 2,750 calories per day. And the remainder was in between. Thus, between half and two-thirds of the world population were undernourished before the war. The analysis concluded that things were worse after the war.2

As has already been discussed in previous chapters of this book, the world trading system prior to the big crisis of the 1930s - based on the gold standard and relatively free trade, which forced nations to adjust to [1] [2]

an international gold standard - finally collapsed in the 1930s, with competitive currency devaluations and increases in trade barriers. The failure of classical economic paradigms opened the door for the Keynesian turn, which focused economies on national variables of fiscal and monetary policy. International policy therefore had to adjust to domestic concerns. Thus, even under the exceptional circumstances of the post-war period, market economy development paradigms had to accept the role of the state as a dominant agent in managing the economy, with a focus on domestic planning. During those critical years, emphasis was placed on import-substitution and industrialisation programmes.

The implementation of this dominant economic development paradigm focused on the recovery of physical infrastructure because that was what the war had destroyed to a great extent. It also assisted national governments in pursuing appropriate policies and getting access to capital and technology for domestic industrial development. The beginnings of foreign assistance came with the implementation of the Marshall Plan, and later other bilateral assistance programmes followed, all of which stressed engineering and physical capital and advised a limited role for economic policy and particularly for social investment.

The idea that the expansion of the trade market was a path to development had not been discussed, and in many cases trade was seen as a source of inequality and exploitation. Therefore, protectionist policies were considered a legitimate part of national policy instruments. Agricultural development was predominantly seen as mainly a technical issue with a focus on machinery, dams, irrigation systems, roads, fertilisers and other facilities. Farmers and peasantry still represented a backward sector of the society, needing to be educated to use better and more advanced technology, which would lead to increased production and improve their incomes and standard of living. This opinion was a combination of a series of accepted ideas: that increases in the production of food were critical; that agriculture was technically backward; that the principle focus of economic policy should be inward looking; and that the nation state was responsible for feeding its people, leading inevitably in most people’s mind to a food security paradigm of self-sufficiency.[3] But trading exclusively for one’s food supply was a dangerous policy, as clearly many countries should have learned after two World Wars.

Once the idea of global governance was abandoned, and the project for a World Food Board set aside, how were the critical issues to be addressed given the prevailing economic and political paradigms? The predominant economic ideology required the creation of an international network that preserved national sovereignty but encouraged and helped nations adjust to a more open and freely functioning set of international markets for goods, services and capital. While an individual nation might fear the liberalisation of trade if it thought that no one else would do likewise, and if there were a mechanism where all nations could agree and do it together, every one would be better off. If a country realised that its currency was over valued, it needed a structured mechanism to do the needful. The genius of the Bretton Woods Institutions and later GATT was to create organisations that could help to stabilise international markets while leaving in place the idea of national sovereignty over economic policy.

By offering monetary assistance, opportunities for growth and technical advice, the IMF, GATT and the World Bank supported national policy makers to become more outward looking. If nations could meet and debate their differences and approximate positions, and even though agreements were not attained, the chances of conflict would be lessened. If the better off could help the ravaged and the less well off grow more rapidly, peace would be more likely. Thus the United Nations itself and its specialised agencies such as the World Bank, the FAO and the WHO could provide technical assistance, policy advice and long-term capital for reconstruction and development, without interfering with the internal policies of the states.

In agriculture, if the global community wanted to help, the best way was with technical, biological and mechanical assistance and funds for domestic investments. After the failure of Boyd Orr, and a more ambitious programme of global governance of food markets, the FAO focused on creating the best conditions for technical relief. External relief was a major necessity in many regions in the world. A noteworthy fact is that it would take at least 15 years for the World Bank to start to show much interest in agriculture. The United Nations and its then emerging specialised agencies, such as the FAO, dominated the landscape. The developed countries that were not deeply damaged by the war played a part. By far the most dominant was the United States, which provided capital, technical assistance and policy promotion in many ways, including the Marshall Plan, which swamped efforts to move capital by the newly created World Bank. Other countries such as Canada, Australia and South Africa provided funds and technical assistance. The European pre-war colonial powers such as the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands had tropical agricultural research organisations, which potentially could help developing countries and

Latin America, and the Rockefeller Foundation developed agricultural programmes in Mexico and other countries.

  • [1] World Food Survey. Washington, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UnitedNations, 1946, p. 5.
  • [2] McCalla, A.F., Revoredo, C.L., Prospects for Global Food Security: A CriticalAppraisal of Past Projections and Predictions, Washington, DC, IFPRI, 2001, p. 26.
  • [3] World Food Survey, 1946.
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