Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

F.L. McDougall and the Origins of the FAO

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

F.L. McDougall and the Origins of the FAO

Article excerpt

Walking in Melbourne's Botanical Gardens in July 1924, Frank Lidgett McDougall asked himself "what was I"? to which he replied "an expert on Empire Trade and an artist at propaganda".(1) This was some advance on an earlier appreciation of himself as a "working farmer with no knowledge of economics, politics or anything", though "posing as an expert on subjects in which he knows nothing".(2) Still it is not as an "expert on Empire Trade" that he is best remembered internationally but rather as an exponent of "nutrition" and founder of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) based in Rome. His contribution in that sphere was endorsed publicly by, among others, Indira Gandhi, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and even by Pope John XXIII in a papal encyclical. Arnold Toynbee referred to McDougall's "faith in human nature" and his belief "that we human beings have in us enough goodness, wisdom, rationality, ability and freedom of choice to control and guide the course of human affairs to the extent that makes the effort worthwhile",(3) while Gunnar Myrdal considered that Frank McDougall "had the practical sense of a world statesman".(4) Kenneth Kaunda, when acclaiming McDougall in 1979, reiterated McDougall's oft-quoted statement made in 1935 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 for production of modern agriculture".(5)

Admittedly in purveying his "nutritional message" McDougall drew on his earlier acknowledged skills as a "propagandist" but what of his expertise in "Empire Trade"? "Empire Trade" was narrowly focussed, restrictive, combative and essentially pandered to xenophobic nationalistic instincts and pursuits that could best be realised within the limits of a confined section of the world and to hell with the rest. The nutritional vista was much more extensive -- it was world embracing, hostile to institutional barriers, national or otherwise, favoured movements of people and produce and ultimately championed a redistribution of wealth that would provide a well balanced nutritional diet for the greatest possible number. Thus, the skills perfected in his promotion of Empire Trade were not necessarily those for the advancement of a freer moving world economic dispensation. In fact, they could even have impeded the latter. How then can we account for McDougall's Pauline conversion to nutrition?

Wendy Way maintains that the "seeds were sown in his work at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) and his concurrent appointments as London representative of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific Research and the Commonwealth Development Migration Commission".(6) That may well be so, but it is doubtful if germination could have been guaranteed. McDougall was a member of the Research Grants Committee of the EMB, but of the 126 grants made between July 1926 and September 1933, only two were specifically ear-marked for dietetics: one to the Lister Institute on the vitamin content of fruit, vegetables and dairy produce and the other to the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, for research into the diet of Kenyan tribes.(7) Admittedly McDougall made the acquaintance of John Boyd Orr, the director of the Rowett Institute and an expert on nutrition, but that in itself did not change his views. These contacts, and the scientific horizons which they opened up for McDougall, certainly proved influential later on, but there is no evidence that he was diverted by them from his empire market objectives. The research grants committee of the EMB may well have been the prototype of the FAO but they were not its inspiration. Up until 1933 at least, McDougall was committed to preferential trade targets within the British Empire.

While McDougall did not invent the notion of the exchange of preferences within the British market, he certainly refined and popularised the idea. In his book Sheltered Markets, published in 1925, McDougall wrote that "the advantage of Empire Trade over European appears to be overwhelming",(8) and in his promotion of tariffs he likened them "to a weir which obstructs the natural flow of trade. …

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