John Boyd Orr (1880-1971): Global Food Policy

Nobel Prize winner in 1949

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John Boyd Orr, a Scottish scientist with experience in food policy, was appointed first Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). / Nobelprize.org

On 16 October 1945, representatives from thirty-four nations signed the Charter for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). John Boyd Orr, a Scottish scientist with experience in food policy, was appointed its first Director-General. He had been Carnegie Researcher in physiology and during World War I he fought as a doctor against the malnutrition, hunger and physical deterioration of British soldiers. After the war he founded the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, dedicated to experimental physiology of nutrition. In the 1920s he travelled through Africa, the Middle East, New Zealand, Australia and India interested in animal nutrition and agricultural policy. His research culminated in the publication of Food, Health and Income (1936), a report of great impact, which revealed that a third of the British population showed signs of chronic malnutrition. His reports and arguments about the negative health effects of a poor diet became the foundation of the British food policy during World War II. Boyd Orr was a member of Churchill’s Scientific Committee on Food Policy.

John Boyd Orr and the unsuccessful World Food Board

Despite Boyd Orr’s long experience, his work as Director-General of FAO was fleeting. Political reasons led to his resignation just a few months after his appointment. In 1946 the International Emergency Food Council had been founded under the auspices of FAO with representatives from thirty-four countries, in order to tackle the postwar food crisis and adopt a world food program. Boyd Orr proposed the creation of a World Food Board (WFB) to regulate surplus and avoid shortages, but his proposal was rejected in 1947, neither the United Kingdom nor the United States supported the proposal. Boyd Orr understood that FAO could not contribute to world peace without the support of the great powers and resigned from the general direction. In 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to fight world hunger and he donated the money to the National Peace Council, the World Movement for World Federal Government and other humanitarian organizations. Boyd Orr was an ardent fighter for internationalism and global governance.

«In 1949 John Boyd Orr was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to fight world hunger»

Previously, on 5 July 1946, the FAO Conference held in Washington had passed the proposal of the newly appointed Director-General for the creation of WFB. The agreement had to be ratified at the second plenary session on 2 September 1946 in Copenhagen. The technical report by Boyd Orr acknowledged that before the war there were 1,000 million people who consumed less than 2,250 calories per day. In the lower social levels, food consisted mainly of cereals, the cheapest food, but not one to guarantee a balanced diet. Food consumption depended on purchasing power, and before the war it was estimated that the poorest third (approximately) of the population of the United States lived below the level of a healthy diet. During the war the consumption of eggs and milk had increased by 30% in the United Kingdom thanks to rationing and health indicators improved along with diet because poor nutrition is the primary cause of preventable disease, poverty and early death.

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In the report Food, Health and Income (1936) Boyd Orr revealed that a third of the British population showed signs of chronic malnutrition.

The proposal submitted by the Boyd Orr to the II FAO Conference in Copenhagen in 1946 intended to prevent a dramatic fall in waged and agricultural prices, a general economic crisis and a rapid increase in unemployment. Food is more than a mere commodity, and so the WFB had to act as a regulator of international trade and eradicate hunger via loans so poor countries could increase their food production, regulate the prices of agricultural produce and distribute aid against hunger.

The WFB had to face several challenges. The first big problem was not only to produce enough food to feed an expanding global population, but also to offer a healthy diet. In most developing countries, food was produced on small farms using traditional farming techniques. Political action was to provide work for the farmers and modernize crops. In countries where new technologies were already used, the main problem was to stabilize the market and prices. All this forced to ensure a global market with stable-priced surpluses in order to protect the supply of lower-income sectors. A long-term policy had to reconcile the interests of agriculture, commerce and public health, which was only possible if production was coordinated globally. The WFB would accelerate agricultural expansion and mechanization and expand the markets for equipment, fertilizers and facilities related to conservation and transport, thereby contributing to the achievement of humanitarian goals proclaimed by the United Nations.

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In 16 October 1945, representatives from thirty-four nations signed the Charter for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

To address the problems of global food security, WFB needed authority and resources, with representation from all countries and international organizations. The project presented by J. Boyd Orr to the FAO meeting in Copenhagen attributed four main functions to the WFB: stabilization of prices of agricultural products on global markets; the establishment of a world food reserve to meet crop loss emergencies worldwide; providing funds to reduce surpluses of agricultural products; and cooperation with other organizations for industrial and agricultural development.

To stabilize prices, WFB would operate by setting a minimum and maximum price, buying when the world price fell below the minimum and selling when the price exceeded the maximum. Price stabilization was the main axis. The overall objective was to ensure sufficient production and efficient distribution so that global consumption reached reasonable levels of food health.

The WFB could have been an excellent tool for global stabilization. However, the Copenhagen Conference did not support John Boyd Orr’s ambitious project, and the proposal to create a WFB disappeared from the agenda and was never picked up again. We are currently witnessing ongoing hunger insensitively, even now that there is food for all of us.

© Mètode 2013 - 79. Online only. Pathfinders in Science - Autumn 2013

Catedràtic d’Història de la Ciència de la Universitat de València.