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Far-Reaching Changes Remake the UN Food and Agriculture Organization



An olive oil plant in Tunisia
An olive oil plant in Tebourba, Tunisia. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization statistics show that olive oil is the country's largest commodity. The industry employs many laborers and involves small-scale farmers, but it is seasonal, so it can be problematic. DANIEL BEAUMONT/FAO

BERLIN — The fight against hunger became a primary goal of the United Nations system early on. In 1943, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened an international conference that reached agreement on the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization, and two years later, on Oct. 16, 1945, only days before the founding of the UN itself, 34 nations signed the constitution that established the FAO, the first specialized agency of the UN.

The agency’s goal, according to its constitution, is to raise the “levels of nutrition and standards of living of the people” by securing “improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products.”

Has the agency met the great expectations set out in its founding in the decades since? Is enough food produced nowadays for the world’s population?

To begin with the second question: Yes, in general there is enough food produced nowadays and will be produced in the future — FAO experts say — for the growing global population, though outside experts may not agree. And when hunger catastrophes occur, food aid will continue to be provided by the World Food Program (WFP), established in 1961 by the UN General Assembly and the Food and Agriculture Organization to offer emergency assistance.

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So while famines are at least alleviated but the problems leading to repeated hunger catastrophes are not solved, the Food and Agriculture Organization has not made great progress in resolving the challenge of undernourishment. As the agency said in its 2012 report on global food insecurity, about 870 million people are chronically undernourished; the vast majority of them live in developing countries.

Has the agency failed in this respect? The answer is difficult: It has failed, but it’s the member states that are to account for the failure. From the beginning, the agency’s member states were not ready to provide it with the necessary powers to carry out its promise. Poor storage and distribution of agricultural products remain significant barriers to getting food to the neediest.

The agency’s first director-general, Sir John Boyd Orr, from Scotland, demanded in 1946 at the agency’s conference to set up a world food board authorized to stabilize “the prices of agricultural commodities on the world markets” and to “establish a world food reserve adequate for any emergency.” Sir John also wanted the agency to cooperate with like-minded UN organizations responsible for agricultural development loans and international trade policy, to ensure a coherent food security policy. The Western FAO members rejected Sir John’s proposal in 1947, and the agency was thus restricted for decades to the role of a technical organization, collecting and spreading information on food production and advising farmers.

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Even when the member states were confronted time and again with food crises in the ensuing decades, they did not provide the agency with more powers. Instead, they established new organizations with specific purposes. The World Food Program, coordinating and delivering international food assistance in food emergencies, presented the main challenge for the FAO. It originally operated under the roof of the Food and Agriculture Organization but progressively separated from it and became independent.

In 1971, the World Bank established the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Development Program, to promote research on improving food security; it is mainly staffed and financed by the World Bank. In 1977, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) was established as an independent specialized agency of the UN to provide financial support to small farmers and landless people.

This dispersion of competencies and funds to different organizations weakened the Food and Agriculture Organization’s position. This development was tolerated by the industrialized member countries because they were critical of the demands of the FAO for more planning and coordinating powers. Their indifference toward the agency’s weak position was easy for them to justify, as the agency had considerable structural problems. It was far overstaffed, suffered from faulty top management, did not coordinate the work between the head office, regional centers and country representations well and lacked efficiency control.

The UN’s several food-related organizations and the World Trade Organization influenced food production and distribution without efficient coordination and strongly differing goals for several decades. It meant, in practice, that the structural causes of undernourishment in developing countries were not dealt with properly.

It took a  severe food-price crisis in 2007-2008 to shake up the FAO member states as well as the other food-related UN organizations. A rapid rise in food prices left an additional 150 million people undernourished, bringing their number to 1 billion, which incited food riots in 36 countries.

After this crisis, the agency was ready to reform and improve its relationship with other agricultural organizations. In a Latin American initiative led by Brazil and Argentina, the supporters of reform overcame  opposition from Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the US to radically change the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The reform countries were  supported by nongovernmental organizations and social movements of small-scale farmers and landless people, like La Via Campesina, which represents 150 local and national rural groups in 70 countries, totaling more than 200 million farmers. The group’s role proved to be most important for the reform’s success.

In October 2009, the agency’s members then took the astonishing step to transform the insignificant FAO Committee on World Food Security (CFS) into an authoritative policy forum. This enabled the committee to become the foremost international and intergovernmental platform on food security, and included representatives from FAO, IFAD and CGIAR as well as a large number of nongovernmental organization representatives. The nongovernmental organizations are considered full members, except the right to vote is reserved to the member states only.

The document defining the Committee on World Food Security gives it a significant role in addressing questions of food security and nutrition and in promoting policy convergence and program coordination of the participating agricultural organizations.

But is a consultative organ with a broad membership really a sign of progress? As Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food has remarked: “While the CFS has no formal decision-making power . . . the collective will it expresses, with the important legitimacy of the process, will make it difficult to ignore by governments. What we are seeing with the CFS is a new breed of global governance emerging, in which the NGOs are co-authors of international law with governments and international agencies.”

The rural nongovernmental organizations have welcomed the reform in their statements as an important step forward.

That the World Food Security committee can indeed bring consultation processes between the states, and open them to others, was proven in May 2012, when it adopted important guidelines on governance of land tenure, fisheries and forests.

It is hoped that the committee will tackle other important problems of food security, like the fluctuation of food prices on the world markets, and that the organizations with decision-making powers will put the committee’s guidelines into practice. That would mean real progress for all undernourished people.

This essay is second in a series on UN specialized agencies, starting with the World Health Organization.

[This article was updated on May 14, 2013.]

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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