The FAO Council Chairperson who revolutionized the geopolitics of hunger

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More than 70 years later, Josué de Castro’s view of a world without hunger still holds strong

FAO | 08/12/2023

ROME | Imagine a world with two-thirds of its population living in a state of hunger, while some farmers receive money to destroy their crops during bumper harvests. In this world, the prevailing view is that chronic hunger is either inevitable — the result of unfavourable natural conditions — or a consequence of overpopulation. Thomas Malthus’s 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, which posited that continued population growth necessarily leads to poverty and hunger, still dominates the intellectual landscape.

This is the world that Josué de Castro inhabited when he published his seminal book on hunger in Brazil, The Geography of Hunger, in 1946. A follow-up book, entitled the Geopolitics of Hunger, was translated into dozens of languages and would go on to influence global food policies to this day.

Having observed hunger first hand by touring the slums of his native Brazil, de Castro turned conventional knowledge on its head. As one book reviewer put it when this work was published in New York in the early 1950s, de Castro made “the startling claim that malnutrition, rather than being the result of overpopulation, is the cause of it.”

His book argued that hunger could not be a product of overpopulation since such a phenomenon had already existed on a massive scale before the demographic explosion of the early 20th century. Instead, de Castro realized that hunger is a human-made phenomenon, and therefore under our control.

This Copernican revolution would help earn him the presiding seat of the Council of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the executive governing body that oversees FAO’s programme of work and budget. De Castro was elected Independent Chairperson of the Council in December 1951 and presided over a full session of the Council in June 1952 over 70 years ago. This year marks 50 years since his death.

“As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of this pioneer, let us be reminded that the challenges of hunger and malnutrition he advocated for during his lifetime, need to be addressed now during our lifetime, more than ever before in our history,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

De Castro argued that hunger is a human-made phenomenon and therefore under our control. These thoughts lay the foundations for much of FAO and the global community’s work on eliminating hunger. Left: ©FAO/Alan Glanville Right: © FAO/J. Dabell

De Castro argued that hunger is a human-made phenomenon and therefore under our control. These thoughts lay the foundations for much of FAO and the global community’s work on eliminating hunger. Left: ©FAO/Alan Glanville Right: © FAO/J. Dabell

De Castro’s ideas, thoughts and leadership in this position would also lay the foundations for the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) programme, which was successfully implemented in Brazil in the early 2000s.

“The main contribution of Josué de Castro was to say that hunger was not a natural issue, but a human-made issue,” said José Graziano da Silva, a former FAO Director-General who had previously played a key role in implementing the Fome Zero programme in Brazil. He points to de Castro’s first article, penned in 1935, in which he argued that the problem in Brazil was “not the lack of food available, but the lack of money to buy it.”

“Did his ideas help save millions of lives over the years? I believe so, yes,” Graziano da Silva said.

Mangroves University

De Castro was born into a middle-class family from Recife, Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, on 5 September 1908. He studied medicine at the National Faculty of Medicine of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and then returned to his hometown to become a professor of physiology at the Recife Faculty of Medicine.

It was while researching food and housing conditions in the working-class neighbourhoods of the Pernambuco capital that he concluded that famine was a social catastrophe resulting from existing economic and social structures.

As he put it: “It was not at Sorbonne, or any other knowledgeable university, that I became aware of the phenomenon of hunger. It revealed itself before my eyes in the mangroves of Capibaribe, in the miserable neighbourhoods of Recife: Afogados, Pina, Santo Amaro, Ilha do Leite. This was my university, my Sorbonne.”

In 1935, de Castro moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he taught anthropology and started a career in public service that would eventually see his activism against hunger manifest itself as a member of the Brazilian parliament and as a recognized diplomat on the international stage.

His book, The Geopolitics of Hunger argued that hunger was the consequence of distortions created by an economic development model that exploited the poor, effectively excluding them from enjoying its benefits. His work earned him a Franklin D. Roosevelt Foundation Award and the International Peace Prize. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace prize on several occasions.

De Castro would die in Paris, aged 65, in 1973.

De Castro warned that access and distribution were two of the major challenges in solving global hunger. Today, FAO is continuing this drive to make agrifood systems more inclusive, efficient, resilient and sustainable, particularly in the face of a growing climate crisis. ©FAO

De Castro’s FAO legacy

As Independent Chairperson of the FAO Council, de Castro guided Representatives of FAO Members to discuss not only the availability of food, but also access to it. In one of the sessions, the Council voiced “disappointment with the slow progress in drawing up national development plans for agriculture and in embarking upon projects designed to narrow the gap between the world’s demand for food and available supplies.”

Nowadays, FAO focuses on making agrifood systems more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, leaving no one behind, in the face of a growing climate crisis.

These are issues that de Castro was familiar with already more than 70 years ago.

As the man himself put it in his 1952 speech to the Council, “The purpose of the FAO is to fight against the terrible erosion that hunger is causing in the human race and its civilization, an erosion that threatens to blot from the earth all the gigantic work of [hu]man.”

At the December 2023 FAO Council session, the 50-year anniversary of the death of de Castro was commemorated with the launch of a book entitled Josué de Castro and the Diplomacy of Hunger, organized by Graziano da Silva, Ambassador Carla Barroso Carneiro, Brazil’s Representative to FAO, and Brazilian diplomat Saulo Ceolin. This new book, produced by the Alexandre de Gusmão Foundation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, proves that de Castro’s work continues to serve as an important reference on the socio-environmental impact of hunger.

“It is indeed historical contributions like this that inspired me to embark on the project for a Global Food and Agriculture Museum here at FAO. While we need to look to the future, guided by innovative and forward-looking thinking, we should also look back to our origins and to those dreams and aspirations of the women and men who came before us who laid the foundations for the current Organization we have today. One of these men was Josué de Castro,” said Director-General Qu Dongyu to the FAO Council.

Published by FAO-ROME