"The first cause of hunger and malnutrition is poverty"







Dr Jacques Diouf
Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

If understanding leads to compassion, then my fervent hope is that this book will help the reader understand the principal issues involved in feeding the world. It could make a difference to 800 million chronically undernourished people. This book, published on the occasion of FAO's 50th Anniversary, is not about the Organization as such but the challenges that have largely determined its agenda. They can best be summarized in terms of inequality, hunger and poverty.

The Organization that I have the honour to lead is but a single agency within the United Nations system. We are trying our best, with the limited resources made available by the community of nations, to promote improved nutrition and help developing countries produce more food without harming the environment. The issues covered in this book touch billions of people every day of their lives.

FAO plays a unique role: its international team of development specialists tackle food and agricultural problems not only from a global perspective but also at regional and national levels. Since it is at the service of all its member nations, FAO is perfectly placed to act as a neutral forum and to give objective advice to governments. It encourages debate on the important food and agricultural issues described in this book. Thanks to its network of representatives accredited to over 100 member countries, the Organization also keeps abreast of environmental and socio-economic change in every corner of the earth.


How FAO came into being

The origins of FAO can be traced back to the pioneering efforts of the American David Lubin who, in the 1880s, began pressing for a better deal for the world's food producers. He recognized that agriculture was at a disadvantage in comparison with industry, commerce and finance because farmers were not effectively organized. He also realized that international trade played such a role in establishing prices that only a global organization could defend farmers' interests satisfactorily. Lubin found a patron in Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III and in 1905 an international meeting adopted the Convention that established the International Institute of Agriculture.

The work of the Institute was essentially technical, but world events led to a change in the initiative for agricultural and socio-economic development. Agriculture was profoundly affected by the post-1929 world depression: nations proved unable to solve the problems created by the collapse in trade and mounting agricultural surpluses. At the same time, nutrition research was revealing more about dietary requirements for health and discovering widespread malnutrition within even the most advanced countries because of the inadequate consumption of milk, vegetables, fruits and other so-called "protective" foods.

The paradox of malnourishment at a time when food surpluses were taxing the stability of agriculture was analysed in a celebrated speech to the League of Nations by Stanley Bruce, a former prime minister of Australia, on the basis of a memorandum prepared by his economic adviser Frank McDougall. Both men were influenced by British nutritionist John Boyd Orr.

The central message of Bruce's address was that the League should simultaneously assess the potential benefits to public health from increased consumption of "protective" foods and the extent to which this might help solve the agricultural crisis. Delegates realized that this was an area where the League might assume a constructive and significant role.

Progress was halted, however, by the outbreak of war and the collapse of the League of Nations. But the idea was not lost. As early as 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, was speaking of the need for a United Nations organization and calling for "freedom from want".

In 1942, Frank McDougall, on a visit to the United States, found a lively interest in preparing for the food problems of the post-war world. As a result, he drafted a second memorandum on the subject of "a United Nations programme for freedom from want of food". McDougall's proposal came to the attention of President Roosevelt and the two men met. McDougall urged that food should be the first economic problem tackled by the United Nations. The following year, President Roosevelt convened the United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture at Hot Springs, Virginia, from 18 May to 3 June.

Attended by 44 governments, the conference decided to establish a permanent organization in the field of food and agriculture, and set up an Interim Commission for its preparation. The work of this Commission led directly to the meeting that began on 16 October, 1945, in Quebec City and brought FAO into being as the first of the United Nations specialized agencies.


Nations represented at the United Nations Conference on food and agriculture, 1943

Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
New Zealand
Philippine Commonwealth
Union of South Africa
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
United Kingdom
United States of America


FAO's broad mandate

In the preamble to the Constitution of the fledgling organization, 44 nations signalled their determination "to promote the common welfare". FAO developed new ways to come to grips with this broad mandate. Its first World Food Survey, published the following year, stated categorically that "it is well known that there is much starvation and malnutrition in the world [yet] vague knowledge that this situation exists is not enough; facts and figures are needed if the nations are to attempt to do away with famine and malnutrition".

FAO went on to pioneer systematic data collection and analysis of the world food situation, but information is only one of the many areas in which FAO has led the way in food and agriculture over the past 50 years. The Organization has been active in education and training, rational use of natural resources, environmental protection, participation of small farmers in development planning, the control of plant and animal pests and diseases, the conservation of genetic diversity and the promotion of sustainable agriculture and rural development.

When FAO was still young, the old colonial empires disintegrated. As the new nations gained independence, they had to make fundamental public policy decisions. Many countries opted to favour industry as the engine of their economies. The city became the symbol of modernity par excellence and the rural exodus began in earnest. Both trends were to have negative consequences for agriculture and food self-sufficiency. FAO's constitutional commitment to "bettering the condition of rural populations" took on greater urgency with the years as demand for food expanded with populations and production fell behind.

The food crisis of the early 1970s showed governments, international organizations and the public that it was vital to have up-to-date information permanently available on the supply prospects of staple foods. Therefore, FAO established the Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) in 1975. This sophisticated instrument has since issued more than 200 alerts on deteriorating food situations. Every day analysts study dozens of indicators which affect food supply. Satellite images and weather station data show how the growing season is progressing in broad areas of the developing world. In an emergency, major aid donors and humanitarian organizations are alerted. Food aid can soon be on its way.


Paving the way to food security

"The first cause of hunger and malnutrition is poverty". So declared the 1943 meeting in Hot Springs. It is still true today. The countries that suffer most from hunger desperately need economic growth with, of course, a more equitable sharing of the benefits. This is why FAO stresses food security, the step beyond food production and supply. Food security is when all people have access to the food they need for an active and healthy life. I believe that the only feasible option for an early and sustainable improvement in food security is the enhancement of agricultural productivity, particularly in those countries that are both poor and do not produce the food they need. The key to such gains is efficient technology, applied in a sustainable way to the food crops that can make a difference. FAO now has a new strategy called the Special Programme on Food Production for Food Security in Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries. In 1996, there were 82 such countries.

FAO has also launched an Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases (EMPRES). While FAO has recognized competence in both prevention of, and emergency response to, such problems as desert locust, African swine fever, rinderpest and a host of other pests and diseases, we are at the mercy of the processes of alerts and mobilization of resources, which inevitably take time. EMPRES will do much to increase the impact of FAO's actions.

World Agriculture: Towards 2010, FAO's comprehensive analysis of agricultural trends published in 1995, predicts that the percentage of chronically undernourished people in the developing world will drop from today's 20 percent to just over 11 percent. But even these impressive gains will not suffice to guarantee food for all. In 2010, hunger will still afflict an estimated 650 million people in the world, almost as many people as live in the United States and Western Europe combined. Such predictions make FAO's 50th Anniversary an occasion for both celebration and a renewal of our commitment to fight against hunger and poverty. They bring us back to the important issues covered in this anniversary book which I hope will engage and concern all who read it.

Dr Jacques Diouf


A brief history of FAO

1943 Forty-four governments, meeting in Hot Springs, Virginia, USA, commit themselves to founding a permanent organization for food and agriculture

1945 First session of FAO Conference, Quebec City, Canada, establishes FAO as specialized UN agency

1946 First World Food Survey gives comprehensive picture of world food situation

1947 Norris E. Dodd, US Under Secretary of Agriculture, is elected second FAO Director-General

1948 First area agriculture survey covers Far East and Latin America

1949 International Rice Commission set up

1950 The first post-war World Census of Agriculture is compiled, covering 65 countries

1951 FAO headquarters moves to Rome

1952 Transfer to FAO of the library of the International Institute of Agriculture renamed the David Lubin Memorial Library after the man who pioneered the creation of the Institute in 1905

1953 Philip V. Cardon, formerly of US Department of Agriculture, is elected third FAO Director-General

1954 FAO's Committee on Commodity Problems draws up Guide Lines and Principles of Surplus Disposal, used ever since by food aid programmes

1955 A plant protection agency is set up in Central America, part of a global network dedicated to preventing pests and diseases spreading through international trade

1956 B.R. Sen, senior Indian diplomat, is elected fourth FAO Director-General

1957 FAO launches a World Seed Campaign in which 79 countries and territories participate, culminating in the World Seed Year of 1961

1958 FAO's first review of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa finds yields declining because population growth reduces the fallow period in shifting cultivation below that required by the soil to regenerate

1959 Initiation of UN Special Fund operations puts FAO on road to becoming a major world technical aid agency

1960 Freedom from Hunger Campaign is launched to mobilize non-governmental support

1961 FAO and Unesco embark on preparing a Soil Map of the World to bring order to international soil terminology and nomenclature

1962 The FAD/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission established, in 1961, to set international food standards becomes operational

1963 UN/FAD World Food Programme created

1964 FAO/World Bank Cooperative Programme is established to stimulate investment in agriculture in the developing world

1965 A panel of experts is established to study ways to protect endangered plant genetic resources

1966 UN/FAD World Conference on Land Reform emphasizes the need for an integrated approach

1967 A.H. Boerma, World Food Programme Executive Director, is elected fifth FAO Director-General

1968 First publication by FAO of Ceres, a magazine providing worldwide coverage of agricultural development and issues

1969 FAO releases Indicative World Plan for Agricultural Development, an analysis of major issues for world agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s

1970 Second World Food Congress, The Hague, calls on governments to increase resources for development and to channel a greater proportion through international agencies

1971 Consultative Group on international Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is created

1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, asks FAO to act to conserve the earth's agricultural, forestry, fishery and other natural resources

1973 Office for the Sahelian Relief Operation (OSRO) is established to coordinate emergency aid to famine victims in the Sahelian zone of Africa

1974 UN World Food Conference in Rome recommends the adoption of an International Undertaking on World Food Security

1975 Edouard Saouma, Director of FAO's Land and Water Division, is elected FAO's sixth Director-General

1976 Technical Cooperation Programme, financed from FAO funds, is established to provide greater flexibility in responding to urgent situations

1977 The Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) becomes fully operational

1978 Fourth World Food Survey shows that about 455 million people are undernourished in the developing world

1979 World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD), meeting in Rome, adopts "Peasants' Charter"

1980 First session of the FAO Commission on African Animal Trypanosomiasis

1981 The first World Food Day is celebrated on 16 October by over 150 countries

1982 International Seed Information System is inaugurated and a new associated seed laboratory sends out 20 000 seed samples during the year

1983 FAO Council endorses cooperative action for plant health to develop techniques, such as integrated pest control, suitable for smallholders and poor farmers

1984 World Conference on Fisheries Management and Development, held in Rome, provides first major follow-up to the new regime for the world's oceans

1985 Fifth World Food Survey is published

1986 AGROSTAT, the world's most comprehensive source of agricultural information and statistics, becomes operational

1987 FAO recommends safe levels for radioactive contamination of food in international trade

1988 The Africa Real-Time Environmental Monitoring System (ARTEMIS) is installed at FAO headquarters to process satellite data on rainfall and vegetation

1989 FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources recognizes right of farmers in the developing world to compensation for use of indigenous germplasm in plant breeding

1990 FAO Regional Conference for Africa adopts the International Scheme for the Conservation and Rehabilitation of African Lands

1991 FAO/Netherlands Conference on Agriculture and the Environment at 's-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, discussed requirements for sustainable agriculture and rural development as a precursor to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)

1992 UNCED in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

1993 Dr Jacques Diouf is elected the seventh Director-General of FAO

1994 Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf restructures FAO to support shifts in priorities such as progressive decentralization of staff away from headquarters and a special programme to grow more staple crops in low-income food-deficit countries

1995 FAO is 50 years old