Hope out of horror. Vision out of waste. And out of ruins, a vast rolling-up of sleeves.
The year is 1945. The end of the war is spurring renewal across the breadth of thought and human endeavour: in economics and governance; in science and social studies; in industry and engineering; in the humanities and the arts. But also, and not least, in the realm of values and aspirations.
A commitment to peace is the new proclaimed creed. So is a sense of the possible. Despite the emergence of new divisions in the form of the Cold War, and despite simmering colonial tensions, a new internationalism takes root. With it comes a determination to end, once and for all, the ills that have plagued humankind since its inception.Chief among these are poverty and hunger.
Less well-known than the wilful mass killing associated with World War II is just how much loss of life was linked to food deprivation. Of the 60 million deaths chalked up to the conflict, at least a third are estimated to have been caused by malnutrition and associated diseases. In 1943 in Bengal, some three million perished by famine. In (then Soviet) Ukraine, hunger had slain millions even before the war started. Millions more died in China. In Western Europe, in what had been fairly rich countries, the social and economic fallout of war was unsparingly grim: over the winter of 1944-45 in the Netherlands, people were reduced to eating tulip bulbs; in early post-war Belgium, rickets affected 80 percent of children.
Agriculture was, by and large, ravaged. Across swathes of the globe, food production had shrunk – by up to a third in Europe, in the countries which formed the Soviet Union and in North Africa, and by a tenth in East Asia. The world population had meanwhile swollen by a tenth. This made for an overall drop in per capita farm output of 15 percent from pre-war years. Demographers offered little succour: projections suggested a further, imminent surge in the number of mouths to feed. By 1955, the population of Latin America was forecast to be almost half as large again.
Schoolchildren having breakfast provided by a joint FAO‒UNICEF project, Greece. ©UN Photo / FAO
Grow, nourish, sustain. Together
Even as much of the world struggled to feed itself, bold new words were sketching out new horizons. Already in 1941, in a speech that would inspire the foundational principles of the United Nations (UN), the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had listed freedom from want among his Four Freedoms. He defined it as “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants, everywhere in the world.”
In a landscape of desolation, North America stood out. The mainland of the United States of America had been spared direct conflict: agricultural production there had continued to rise, recovering from the crisis of 1929 and the early 1930s. The intellectual drive which led to the creation of the Food and Agriculture Organization originated there.
The end of World War II provided the impetus. Yet the concept of what would become the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – the idea of a congress with a mission to spread agricultural expertise and improve farmers’ lot across nations – pre-dated the war. The institutional seed had been planted as early as 1905 by one visionary American, David Lubin. His initiative, spurned in his homeland, proved persuasive with the Italian royal court.
FAO was born on the afternoon of 16 October 1945 when its constitution was signed in Quebec City, Canada, by 34 countries, soon to be followed by many more. ©FAO
On 16 October 1945, meeting at the emblematic Château Frontenac in Quebec City, 34 governments signed the Constitution for a permanent organization in the field of food and agriculture. By the end of the first FAO conference, two weeks later, membership had grown to 42. Somewhat paradoxically, FAO’s creation pre-dates that of the United Nations itself, which would not formally come into being for another eight days. (The UN Charter had been signed the previous June in San Francisco, but had yet to meet the threshold for ratification.) The Organization’s Constitution established it as a collaborative body, with a wide mandate to further agricultural knowledge and nutritional wellbeing. Its first Director-General, John Boyd Orr, hailed from Scotland.
Construction work on the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy, is almost completed. ©FAO
Initially located in Washington DC, FAO’s headquarters was then transferred to Rome, home of the IIA, in recognition of Italy’s record of pioneering food-related international co-operation. In 1951, the Organization took up residency in a building repurposed from its initial destination as the colonial-era Ministry of Italian Africa. Bridging the space between two ancient sites, the Baths of Caracalla and the Circus Maximus, the Palazzo FAO, designed along rationalist principles and extended with elements of post-war international style, today houses about 3000 people. Among UN agency headquarters, FAO’s is one of the most architecturally significant.