In quantitative terms, the second big chapter in FAO’s existence opens on a relatively high note. The 1970 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report documents an increase of 70 percent in overall food production since 1948, which works out to a respectable 2.7 percent annual uptick. In the fisheries sector, the pace had been faster – an impressive 4.4 percent. Broadly speaking, the amount of food produced had kept pace with population growth.
Yet this ostensibly benign state of affairs came with major caveats. For one thing, hunger continued to claim a vicious toll. In sub-Saharan Africa, the average annual increase in food production had been a meagre 0.6 percent. And the gains, such as they were, would not last.
A new variety of high-yielding rice being grown in Guyana. ©FAO/J. Ciganovic
In 1972, grain production slumps for the first time since the war. Any surpluses are wiped out. Around the same time, the oil crisis bludgeons Western economies, bringing to a crashing end nearly three decades of unbroken expansion.
The second quarter-century
Alongside the economic shock, the early 1970s in industrial countries crystallized social tensions that had been accumulating since the final stages of the 1960s. Optimism was scarce, amid a sense that a blessed cycle had closed. In parts of the developing world, the post-war and post-decolonization years had yet to deliver drastically better livelihoods; economic empowerment was lagging behind the political sort. By the end of the decade, at a World Conference on agrarian reform, the Tanzanian leader, Julius Nyerere, would speak of people continuing to suffer “unbelievable misery and squalor”.
As expectations of linear progress crumble, established production and consumption models are being questioned. In the West, certainly rich but economically battered, an environmental consciousness is awakening. Greener sensitivities are gaining a voice – in society and culture at first, then in politics. In 1962 already, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had detailed the damages wrought on the environment and human health by the rampant use of pesticides. A rallying cry for the nascent environmental movement, the book laid the premises for the American ban on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in 1972; it would go on to influence opinion and public policy in the United States of America for years to come.
“We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further,” India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, conceded at a conference in Stockholm in 1972, articulating what was shaping up ideologically as a dilemma and policy-wise as a trade-off. “And yet,” she continued, “we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”
Over the following decades, conservation concerns would transform humanity’s understanding of its relationship to nature. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, societies and policymakers acquire a sharper sense of the finite character of the planet’s resources. The search is on for less exploitative ways to deliver socially desirable objectives – among them, an end to hunger.
Farmers dig contour bunds on degraded land as a measure to control erosion, and then plant trees and shrubs to regenerate the land, Ethiopia. ©FAO/Florita Botts
Much attention switches to the oceans and the seas: they are a source of vital nourishment for hundreds of millions. For many others, they equal livelihoods. They also sustain vast fishing industries, and entire coastal and island economies. Around the mid-1970s, fish production begins to level off as disputes flare over exclusive fishing areas and disquiet rumbles over stocks. Addressing an FAO event on the subject in 1984, King Juan Carlos of Spain speaks of the necessity to ensure that “the riches of the sea should not be exhausted in a predatory, short-sighted and selfish endeavour”. In 1995, a comprehensive Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries sees the day. Aquaculture receives a boost.
In most respects, that said, the second quarter-century of FAO’s existence is an era of quick-shifting perceptions but slower-shifting practices. The pursuit of volumes and yields continues to drive mainstream approaches to agricultural development. All the same, the race to end hunger no longer proceeds in a contextual void: it accrues layers of environmental and social nuance.
Traditional fishing boats near the landing stage of Baliwasan Seaside, Zamboanga, Philippines. ©FAO/Marie-Christine Comte
The cyclical, systemic nature of hunger is underscored by desertification and droughts, food crises and famines. Securing access to food – and not just its theoretical availability – starts to inform the discourse of FAO and sister organizations. For access to food to improve, a host of other human and social needs must also be addressed – education, health, a clean and safe environment, and arguably peace. Nor are these just needs: they begin to be forcefully articulated as rights. In seeking to end hunger, inequality is perceived as both a moral scandal and a policy impediment.
Along the way, FAO partly transitions from technical co-operation body to international development agency. The evolution stems from an understanding that narrowly defined, quantitative-minded interpretations of the Organization’s mandate no longer suffice. The logic of more shades off into the logic of better; the spirit of grow, into that of nourish. Technical support to centralized irrigation schemes, for example, loses favour to local, community-centred programmes: these are seen as less wasteful, quicker to set up, more immediately useful and likelier to build resilience.
Oral administration of medicine to a sick calf, part of a series of policies and activities of the Government of the Central African Republic aimed at strengthening and consolidating the development of livestock. ©FAO/R. Faidutti
The new concept of food security, which integrates the principles of availability and access, receives formal recognition in the mid-1970s with the foundation of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). A UN body whose secretariat is hosted by FAO, the CFS is designed as an inclusive forum: it remains the key platform for officials, experts, civil society and industry to debate solutions to global hunger and ways to improve nutrition.
As the 1980s end, the spirit of co-operation released by the fall of the Berlin Wall triggers a renewed sense of the achievable. The European Single Market is born, then the World Trade Organization. A wave of liberalization sweeps the world. Many commercial barriers are dismantled. But increasingly globalized exchanges translate into increasingly globalized food safety concerns. An outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or “mad cow” disease) in British herds is linked to the incidence among consumers of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a degenerative neurological condition. The episode shines a disturbing light on the continuum between human and animal health. Drawing on FAO’s expertise in combating livestock diseases, the Codex Alimentarius tackles the fraught question of animal feed – a further layer of complexity in the effort to secure safe, sufficient and nutritious food for all.
The mid-1990s find FAO an unquestionably more sophisticated outfit in terms of its breadth of knowledge and statistical prowess. But they also find it a stately normative agency in a fast-deregulating era. Its institutional culture is government-oriented, even as agricultural initiative and standard-setting power have largely passed to the private sector. Governments themselves, particularly in countries in transition, are increasingly looking to thinktanks and independent foundations for policy advice; and as crisis follows crisis, the capacity for quick public and political mobilization is ever more the domain of global non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
FAO Conference regarding “Procedures for global harmonization of plant quarantine”. ©FAO
As the new millennium approached, what FAO had contributed to post-war agriculture and communities far and wide – growth and nourishment – could also be said to apply to the Organization itself: rapid expansion followed by complex fine-tuning. The next quarter-century, dominated by the challenges of a changing climate, protracted conflict and a V-shaped evolution in hunger rates, would require much strategic vision and adaptability.