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2. origins of the idea

It is worth while to explore a bit further the background against which FAO was created. This should be seen both in the short term and over the much longer term, in relation to how man and agriculture have evolved.

Immediate Origins of the FAO Idea

Many people contributed to the thinking that led eventually to the creation of FAO, but the thoughts and actions of half-a-dozen were critical to the development of the idea and to the final outcome, either because they contributed importantly to the idea itself, or because they were in the right position, at the right time, to take action. A brief account of their contributions will therefore serve to indicate how the idea emerged and eventually took shape in the form of the present international intergovernmental organization.

David Lubin, a Polish-born American citizen who had achieved considerable success as a merchant in California, became concerned over the plight of farmers during the depression of the 1880s and 1890s, which had also created difficulties for him in his own farming enterprises. Setting out to develop some mechanism at the international level for bettering the farmers' lot, and through single-mindedness and persistence, he persuaded Ministers in several countries to heed his ideas, and despite many obstacles an organization along the lines he had in mind was created in 1905: the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA). This first international intergovernmental organization to deal with problems of agriculture generally functioned, within the limitations of its mandate, without serious interruption until World War II, after which its assets were absorbed by FAO. A major asset was the library, which is now housed in FAO as part of the David Lubin Memorial Library.

King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy proved to be the key person David Lubin contacted during his crusade. Impressed by Lubin's sincere conviction, the king wrote on 24 January 1905 to his Prime Minister, Giovanni Giolitti, pointing out that “it might be extremely useful to set up an international institute which, without any political designs, would study the conditions of agriculture in the various countries of the world and periodically issue information on the quantity and quality of crops…” This led to the convening of a Conference in Rome, and, on 7 June 1905, the signing by 40 countries of a Convention establishing the IIA with Headquarters in the Villa Borghese, in Rome.

Frank L. McDougall, of Australia, in the summer of 1935, Wrote his memorandum on The Agricultural and the Health Problems, in which he stated that “it would argue a bankruptcy of statesmanship if it should prove impossible to bring together a great unsatisfied need for highly nutritious food and the immense potential production of modern agriculture”. McDougall drew upon the findings of leading nutritionists in the United States and the United Kingdom, and upon the views of his colleagues at the League of Nations, and his memorandum served as a first step towards bringing before an international forum the findings of nutritionists that a large portion of the world's population did not get enough of the right sort of food to eat, and the view that food production should be expanded to meet nutritional requirements, rather than restricted.

Stanley Bruce (later Viscount Bruce of Melbourne, and also first Independent Chairman of the FAO Council), addressing the League of Nations Assembly on 11 September 1935 and basing his comments upon McDougall's memorandum, made a strong case for what became known as “the marriage of health and agriculture”, in the hope that the League, then being thwarted by insoluble political problems, might be persuaded to turn constructively to economic and social issues. The favourable reaction to this speech led McDougall to cable to Sir John Boyd Orr, who ten years later became the first Director-General of FAO, “We have this day lighted such a candle, by God's grace, in Geneva, as we trust shall never be put out.” During October 1942 discussions on an International Wheat Agreement in Washington, McDougall wrote a second memorandum, in consultation with a small group of individuals (mostly from the US Department of Agriculture). Prepared for private circulation only, under the title Draft Memorandum on a United Nations Programme for Freedom from Want of Food, it contained some ideas as to how governments might develop an organization to deal with food and agricultural problems. In its title the term “United Nations” referred to the countries that were then banded together in their effort to win World War II, and not to the present organizational sense of the expression.

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of the President of the United States), learning of this memorandum and becoming actively interested in its contents, met with McDougall, and decided that the ideas it contained were worth bringing to the President's attention. As a result McDougall was invited to dine with a small group at the White House, where he made the point to President Roosevelt that, while the United Nations were thus far held together by the exigencies of war, once the war was over they would need some common problems upon which to work if their cooperation was to continue. Food was certainly a problem common to all, even if the world seems to have “discovered” it as an issue only during the 1970s.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the sixth in the series of individuals referred to at the outset of this section, was attentive, but gave no indication at the time as to what action, if any, he might take. McDougall heard nothing more until he read a newspaper announcement that the President was going to invite allied governments to participate in a United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture, in Hot Springs, Virginia. The Conference, held from 18 May to 3 June 1943, set up an Interim Commission which led to the establishment of FAO, on 16 October 1945, at the First Session of the FAO Conference in Quebec. Thus the candle lit in Geneva in 1935, and nearly extinguished by World War II, burned ten years later with a brighter flame than ever.

The scenario from the 1880s to the 1940s was of course much more complex, and many more people played parts in it than the foregoing summary suggests. The object here is to provide only a broad outline of the situation and events which led to the founding of FAO in 1945. However, one further contribution to the early development of the FAO idea should be noted.

The League of Nations Secretariat had contained a small Health Section which originally developed from an international commission created to control typhus in Eastern Europe after World War I. About 1930, when there was growing recognition of the importance of nutrition for health, it was decided that the Section should include nutrition in its programme (Aykroyd, 1953). The first international nutrition officer appointed to it was Dr. W. R. Aykroyd, who some 15 years later became the first Director of FAO's Nutrition Division. One of the products of the Health Section was a paper on Nutrition and Public Health (Burnet and Aykroyd, 1935), in which an attempt was made to show the vital significance of good nutrition for human well-being, and to indicate practical measures for improving nutrition. Published just before the League of Nations Assembly debate on nutrition, in which Stanley Bruce called for “the marriage of health and agriculture”, it was written independently of the memorandum and speech prepared by the Australian team, but served to some extent as a background document for the debate.

The discussion on nutrition in the Assembly, despite expectations that it would generate little interest, lasted three days, and this was all the more surprising because the main political issue before the Assembly at the time was the impending Italian aggression against Ethiopia. As a result of the discussion the Assembly established two bodies, a Technical Commission on Nutrition to consider inter alia human physiological food requirements, and a Mixed Committee to report on nutrition in relation to health and agriculture and on the economic aspects of the subject. The Commission produced a report on The Physiological Bases of Nutrition (League of Nations, 1936), and the Mixed Committee a report on The Relation of Nutrition to Health, Agricultural and Economic Policy (League of Nations, 1937). The threat of World War II and, soon thereafter, its outbreak, halted these promising activities, although their influence was felt in some countries during the war period, and they helped to set the stage for the Hot Springs Conference and the subsequent formation of FAO.

A Longer-Term Perspective

Governments have formed many organizations during this century to deal with international problems, including those of agriculture. Some, like the League of Nations and the International Institute of Agriculture, have already passed from the scene and have been replaced by others. International intergovernmental organizations are, in fact, almost uniquely a product of the 20th century, even if their emergence, as mechanisms for the conduct of international affairs, is but a modern expression of a trend that is as old as man himself. Man, unlike other animals, can store up and use knowledge. Each generation adds to the store. Each new generation has had at its disposal all the knowledge that has been acquired and passed on by those that have gone before. The invention of writing of course facilitated greatly the passing of information from one generation to the next. A generation does not live out its life instinctively according to a pattern followed by these before it: it adds something new and develops a pattern of its own. life therefore grows ever more complex, more highly organized.

When man first emerged long ago as a being with the intelligence to fashion and use tools, his pattern of life was simple. It changed little from generation to generation. Over the long period of prehistory, bits were added: tools, clothes, better shelters, fire, some knowledge of the stars, the lever and the wheel. Even so, progress was slow compared with the rate achieved after organized agriculture began, and slow indeed compared with the rate at which knowledge has been accumulating during this century. And to cope with the application of this increasing store of knowledge, man has had to develop increasingly complex organizational arrangements at the community, provincial, and national levels, and, in relatively recent times, internationally as well. Agriculture has shared fully in this trend and has been a major contributor to it. If all mankind's existence could be telescoped into a single year, the time during which cereal agriculture has been practised would occupy only about two days. Organized agriculture had its beginnings only about nine or perhaps ten thousand years ago, in the development of cereal agriculture on the flanks of the mountain ranges of the Near East. It provided the basis for the formation of the Near Eastern village farming communities, which in turn created the social and economic conditions for the domestication of the meat-producing animals.

Then organized agriculture began to spread throughout the world, farmers began to grow food for city-dwellers as well as for themselves, sailing ships and then steam vessels moved around the earth, and airplanes speeded the movement of peoples and products among nations. Accentuated during this century by the rapid growth of science and technology, and by the surplus production created in some countries as a result of their application, the need for mechanisms to enable countries to consult among themselves on problems of agriculture and the many other affairs of their peoples arose and increased, and in response to it the international organizations emerged.

Agricultural scientists began to organize for the international exchange of information only a little over a century ago. For example, the first of a continuing series of International Veterinary Congresses was held in Hamburg, Germany, in 1863. At about the same time, the problems of sugar producers resulted in the signing in 1864 of what was perhaps the first intergovernmental commodity agreement.

Many non-governmental groups interested in various phases of agriculture had begun to meet on an international basis before 1900, particularly in Europe. The International Commission on Agriculture, probably the first formal international group established to deal with the general interests of agriculture, was formed in 1889, the result of efforts by private individuals and groups in Europe who, stimulated largely by the severe agricultural depression of the 1880s and 1890s, felt the need for organization to offset the inherent weaknesses of the industry and to deal with common problems of agriculture on a worldwide basis.

However, the first international intergovernmental body formed to deal with the general problems of agriculture did not emerge until after the turn of the century. It was the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA), the history of whose creation was outlined on pages 3–4. The IIA convened international meetings in many fields, assembled and published statistics on world agriculture, organized the first world census of agriculture in 1930, and issued many technical publications. Its work was brought nearly to a standstill by World War II. Then, following the establishment of FAO in 1945, the IIA was dissolved, and its assets were absorbed by FAO. Thus, within the first half of the 20th century, the first international intergovernmental agricultural organization had been set up, had lived out a useful existence, and had been replaced by an organization with substantially broader responsibilities.

In addition to FAO, the primary international intergovernmental organization dealing with food and agriculture, governments have created many other international and regional organizations concerned to some extent with food and agricultural matters. These are too numerous to list here, but they include a number of organizations which—like FAO — are independent organizations in the UN system; a number of subsidiary bodies of the United Nations; and many organizations outside the UN system such as those which deal with various agricultural commodities on a worldwide basis, or with some aspects of agriculture on a regional basis. These are mentioned here only to underline that governments have found it desirable to form many intergovernmental organizations in their search for ways of dealing with international problems, including those of agriculture.

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