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Published July 11, 2011, 05:25 AM

David Lubin established foundation for what would become FAO

ROME — The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s role as a collector and disseminator of agricultural statistics has its roots in an American merchant-turned-farmer’s campaign to get worldwide farm production in the hands of farmers so that traders could not take advantage of them.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

ROME — The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s role as a collector and disseminator of agricultural statistics has its roots in an American merchant-turned-farmer’s campaign to get worldwide farm production in the hands of farmers so that traders could not take advantage of them.

David Lubin, a Jew born in 1849 in Klodawa, Poland, came to New York at the age of 6 and, by the 1870s, had become a successful merchant in Sacramento, Calif., operating Lubin’s One Price Store, which later became known as the Weinstock-Lubin Co.

On an 1884 trip to Palestine, the degraded farmland peaked his interest in agriculture. Back in California, he bought a fruit ranch near Sacramento and land for raising wheat in the state’s Colusa County.

Assistance to farmers and the public

But he quickly learned that farming could be a tough business. When the supply of fruits exceeded demand and people talked of overproduction, Lubin told California fruit growers that he didn’t believe in the term because there were people who were hungry for their peaches, apricots and table grapes if only they could afford to buy them.

By 1893, when there was a wheat crisis, Lubin began to realize that the issue of supply and demand was not just in California, but a problem of national and international interest. He launched direct sales of farm produce by mail and worked for government assistance to farmers, although he found Congress not very willing to listen. His son, Simon, helped him develop his idea for an international chamber of commerce that would provide farmers with the kind of market information that was only in the hands of traders and also would encourage governments to assist farmers with technical development.

Start of a change

No one in Washington, Paris or London was willing to take him seriously, but in 1904, he won an audience with King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy.

Lubin told the king, “I bring you the opportunity to perform a work of historic importance, which will entitle you to more enduring fame than the Caesars; they earned fame by wars, you would earn it by working for peace, the peace of righteousness. . . . You are, of course, a very important person here, but remember you are a small potato in the world, the monarch of a third-rate nation. Take up this work in earnest and at one leap Italy can head the nations in the general fight of our days: the fight for Justice in economic relations.”

Victor Emmanuel III was impressed, backed the project and wrote his prime minister:

“The rural classes are generally the most numerous and have great influence on the conditions of nations everywhere but, scattered as they are, they cannot do what would be necessary to improve the various crops and distribute them in line with the requirements of consumption. Moreover, they cannot adequately defend their interests on the market, which, for the most important produce of the soil, is widening more and more to embrace the whole world.

“Therefore, it might be extremely useful to set up an International Institute which, without any political designs, would study the conditions of agriculture in the various countries of the world and would periodically issue information on the quantity and quality of crops. . . .”

International Institute

of Agriculture

An international conference was held in Rome in 1905 with attendance from 40 countries, and the International Institute of Agriculture was launched. President Theodore Roosevelt sent the treaty to Congress for approval and named Lubin the U.S. representative to it.

Operating out of the Villa Lubin, a building constructed in the Villa Borghese, the largest public park in Rome, the IIA in 1909 began publishing its yearbooks and a monthly report on agricultural statistics that was telegraphed to some governments. Grain traders did not like the institute because the public availability of information made deal-making more difficult, but it kept down rumors of famines.

Lubin often had a hard time getting the ear of U.S. lawmakers, but he did influence the 1916 Federal Farm Act, which started the farm credit system. In 1919, Lubin died in an influenza epidemic in Rome, but the institute continued to exist even during World War II.

FAO established

In 1943, inspired partly by the writings of Frank MacDougall, an Australian, President Franklin Roosevelt summoned leaders from 44 countries to establish an international organization that would attempt to end world hunger. For the next two years, Lester Pearson, a future Canadian prime minister, led an interim commission to establish a specialized U.N. agency that would help farmers improve their productivity and get fair prices in the postwar era.

In 1945, when the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization was established, it recognized that Lubin’s ideas, principles and actions were the cornerstone of its activities, and the Institute for International Agriculture was folded into the FAO.

The FAO initially was located in Washington, but moved to Rome in 1951 when the Italian government offered to house it a building that Mussolini had planned to be Italy’s “Ministry of Empire.”

The institute’s collection of documents forms the core of FAO’s David Lubin Memorial Library. In 1969, on the 50th anniversary of Lubin’s death, then- U.S. representative A.J. Mair was among those speaking at a commemoration of Lubin’s work.

“David Lubin was not only a highly respected citizen of our country, but, in a very real sense, he was a citizen of the world,” Mair said. “At a time when serious thinking regarding cooperation among countries through international organizations had hardly begun to emerge, David Lubin had the foresight not only to see the problems of the farmers of his own country, but to recognize that these problems were linked to the problems of the farmers around the world. He had the vision and the fortitude to set out to do something about it, to create some kind of international mechanism, through which the combined forces of farmers everywhere could be heard.”

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