Speaking Volumes: John Boyd Orr's Food and the People

July 4, 1997

On John Boyd Orr's Food and the People.

I am an inveterate peruser of secondhand booksellers' catalogues and it was through one nearly 20 years ago that I bought a copy of Sir John Boyd Orr's Food and the People published by the Pilot Press in 1943. The few who do read Boyd Orr today undoubtedly read his classic Food, Health and Income of 1936 rather than this. A shame. This 56-page book is the more visionary document. It summarises what was wrong with food policy in 18 pages and then in 31 pages spells out what could be changed. It is a plea for a radical, comprehensive food policy.

It was produced as the third of the Target for Tomorrow series edited by Charles Madge of Mass Observation fame, Sir William Beveridge, Julian Huxley and Boyd Orr himself. Then, as now, I was fascinated by the movements and people behind British and world food policy. Here was one of the luminaries of 20th-century food policy, a doctor and researcher - whose seminal work on poverty and ill-health had helped catalyse change in academic research before the second world war - writing a clear tract against individualist solutions to food policy problems. Boyd Orr uses different disciplines and arguments, and I loved immediately the clear style, the short sentences and the marvellous graphics. In the place of complicated statistics, he has photos and other illustrations. He shows the infant mortality rate by including a figure with lots of little children alongside crosses to mark the death figures; you don't need a degree to get his point that Britain's mortality is a policy outcome, not a natural fact. What I love above all is the humanity and sense of purpose that infuse his pages. Here is a man confident about a wealth of understanding derived from nutrition and social research over the previous two decades, now bringing his intelligence to bear on the social challenge of how to reconstruct a sane food policy to feed all the people, not just the rich. Would that British food policy had learnt the lesson of the idiocy of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism.

The war, of course, gave space for this freedom of expression, but Boyd Orr and the food movement of the day, including Lubbock, Le Gros Clark, and Rowntree, took their chance. As David Smith's excellent collection Nutrition in Britain (Routledge 1996) shows us, they argued with each other, but united for policy improvements.

They held up models, and trials with better school meals and better farming and marketing were produced with relish to show improvements. Look! the children grow larger. See! the land yields more. Listen! well-fed people are contented. Taste! society feels better, is more just. The evidence of wasted production and wasted lives that they had catalogued was finally useful.

Boyd Orr spent the rest of his life working on the themes, at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen and as first head of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation. Now, we may view more critically his faith in technology to combat food supply problems. Would that the wilder proponents of biotechnology learned some humility about technical fixes.

That said, we should be wary of dismissing the vision in Food and the People as impossible then, let alone today. His own words are clear - that to feed all the people requires a complex array of measures and policy instruments. Technology has to be driven by an overt policy framework. Redistribution of food symbolised the need for a egalitarian social structure. He was clear that this would mean confrontation with vested interests. Powerful industries would raise objections, he warned echoing the views of Frederick Le Gros Clark and Richard Titmuss in their prewar Our Food Problem: A Study of National Security (Penguin 1939).

Boyd Orr's response to their worry is magisterial. The popular shall triumph. But he under-estimated the postwar affluence and the dismantling of the advances made during war-time food control. Production-led food policy triumphed over public need. And the seeds for today's food crisis were sown.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, Thames Valley University and author of Food Policy for the 21st Century.

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