World Aspirations for Defeating the Starvation

  December 19, 2023   Read time 8 min
World Aspirations for Defeating the Starvation
The need for some form of multilateral world food security arrangement had already been recognized by the League of Nations before the Second World War to rationalize food production, supply and trade for the benefit of both producers and consumers, in both developing as well as developed countries.

Attention was focused on two basic concerns: first, to reconcile the interests of producers and consumers by protecting them from uncontrolled fluctuations in world agricultural production and prices; and secondly, to use constructively agricultural output in excess of commercial market demand (the so-called agricultural ‘surpluses’) to assist economic and social development in developing countries without creating disincentive to their domestic agricultural production or disruption to local or international trade. This vision of world food security that re-emerged at the creation of FAO has remained a constant, if flicking, light.

In the 1920s, the preoccupation with post-war recovery and the impact of a rather short lived boom and slump, followed by a new era of prosperity (which in the views of many was expected to last much longer than it did), provided relatively little incentive for intergovernmental action on international commodity. Early Attempts: FAO’s Pioneering Work problems, although there were some, mainly producers’, agreements. In the early 1930s, on the other hand, the disastrous effects of the Great Depression on consumer purchasing power and on the incomes of primary producers, underlined the need for some form of intergovernmental arrangement for staple foodstuffs. At the same time, the results of important new advances in the science of nutrition were widely propagated. This led to the discovery that the incidence of chronic malnutrition, with harmful effects on health, was widespread, even in relatively high-income countries, and particularly among children and other vulnerable groups. Following the Great Depression, when markets for staple foods were glutted and producers faced ruin, the growing recognition of the widespread character of nutritional deficiencies strengthened the conviction that there was something wrong with the recurring manifestations of ‘poverty in the midst of plenty’ and that solutions should be sought through the selective expansion of food consumption rather than through the curtailment of output that had been previously practiced. Furthermore, the basic cure of under-consumption had to be seen in the promotion of measures designed to raise the real incomes of needy people.
In the early 1930s, Yugoslavia proposed that in view of the importance of food for health, the Health Division of the League of Nations should disseminate information about the food position in representative countries of the world. Its report was the first introduction of the world food problem into the international political arena.1 Dr. Frank Boudreau, head of the League’s Health Division, with Drs. Aykroyd and Bennet, visited a number of countries and submitted a report on Nutrition and Public Health (1935), which showed that there was an acute food shortage in the poor countries, the first account of the extent of hunger and malnutrition in the world. Discussions held on nutrition policies in the Assembly of the League of Nations were based on some important pioneering efforts that had helped to prepare the ground and led to further practical progress. These endeavours marked the beginnings of co-ordinated nutrition policies in a number of countries. Meanwhile, the hardships caused by the unprecedented slump of the early 1930s, and fears of their recurrence, led governments to adopt national price and production controls for foodstuffs and other agricultural products in exporting countries, coupled with trade restrictions in importing countries. At the same time, there was also growing interest in the regulation of world trade in foodstuffs and other staple products through intergovernmental action.
The ILO, in a comprehensive report on intergovernmental commodity control agreements, stated that ‘although there was a marked tendency for raw material control schemes to develop before the great depression, intergovernmental schemes have developed during the years since the depression’ (ILO, 1943). In essence, the inter-war agreements for foodstuffs were based on quotas as well as the operation of buffer stocks. The possibility of organizing international buffer stocks as part of international control arrangements was first discussed more thoroughly only in 1937 by the League of Nations Committee on the Study of the Problems of Raw Materials. To sum up, the main trends of thought and action developed during the 1930s were: first, the beginning of national nutrition policies based on the spread of newer knowledge of nutrition and promoted by international co-operation; second, and partly in conflict with the first, the growth of market rigidities, national price and production controls, and trade restrictions; and third, growing interest in intergovernmental commodity arrangements.
No action was taken on the League of Nations nutrition report until 1935 when the subject was raised again in the Assembly of the League by Stanley Bruce, formerly Prime Minister of Australia, and by then Viscount Bruce of Melbourne and High Commissioner for Australia in London. Bruce had attended the World Monetary and Economic Conference in London in 1932–33 when, as a result of the economic crisis, and the shrinkage of international trade, widespread unemployment occurred in both Europe and the United States. The only remedies that were being applied were tariff barriers and other measures to restrict the production of food and other goods in order to raise prices. Bruce uttered the solemn warning that ‘an economic system which restricted the production and distribution of the things that the majority of mankind urgently needed was one that could not endure’. He predicted disaster unless measures were taken to develop the potential wealth of the world in a rapidly expanding world economy. Bruce proposed at the League of Nations that committees should be set up to find out how much more food was needed and what means might be taken to get nations to cooperate in a world food plan based on human needs.
As a result, a three-day debate took place in the Assembly of the League of Nations during which it was argued that increasing food production to meet human needs would bring prosperity to agriculture, which would overflow into industry, and bring about the needed expansion of the world economy, through what Bruce described as ‘the marriage of health and agriculture’. This new conception of considering food in all its relationships to health, economics and politics, roused considerable enthusiasm. It was decided to consider ways and means of applying this new idea in practice. An international committee of physiologists, including Americans and Russians, was appointed to report on the food needed for health. An ‘International Standard of Food Requirements’ was agreed upon, which gave an indication of the amount of food needed throughout the world. A ‘mixed committee’ of leading authorities on nutrition, agriculture and economics was then appointed to examine and make recommendations on every aspect of the food problem, including production, transport and trade. This committee of 20 members brought out a report on the benefits from developing the world’s food supplies. A conference was called to consider what action to take to implement its recommendations. Bruce and others sent the following telegram to Boyd Orr with whom the subject had been discussed: ‘Dear Brother Orr, this day we have lit a candle which, by the Grace of God’s grace, will never be put out’ (a reference to a speech made by Hugh Latimer when he and another Protestant were burned at the stake).
At the committee which had been charged to draw up the standard diet needed for health, Boyd Orr sat between the American and Russian delegates. He found that both ‘co-operated harmoniously’ in preparing the report. When it was received, the League of Nations Assembly decided to set up another committee of financiers, economists, business men and scientists to work out the economic advantages of a world food policy. The final report on The Relation of Health, Agriculture and Economic Policy, published by the League in 1937, indicated the lines along which the expansion of the world economy could most easily begin. It was declared a best-seller by The New York Times (Boyd Orr, 1966, p. 120). Walter Elliot and Earl De La Warr, respectively Minister and Under-Secretary for Agriculture in the United Kingdom, saw that the food problem of a ‘glut’ followed by a fall in food prices paid to farmers was one of under-consumption rather than overproduction. In 1938, 22 nations, including the United States and Russia, met in conference to arrange how this new world food policy could be carried out. But the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 brought this promising development to an end. The view was expressed that if the League of Nations had devoted more time to social and economic problems than to politics, it might have succeeded in eliminating the causes of war.
The conference at Hot Springs in 1943 was attended by some of those who had taken part in the League of Nations work and debates on nutrition and food security. They discussed the League’s work with both President Roosevelt and Vice-President Henry Wallace, and suggested that as food was, in Roosevelt’s language, ‘the first want of man’, a world food policy would be the best way to begin to fulfil the promise of freedom from want for all people that was previously made in the Atlantic Charter, signed by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in August 1941

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