From the mid-19th century, reflecting a growing recognition of the interdependence of nations in agriculture and associated sciences, international conferences were held at which there were exchanges of knowledge relating to biology, biochemistry, crop diversification, and animal health. However, it was not until 1905 that these individually valuable but unrelated efforts were coordinated with the founding of the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA).
One of the institute's aims, which were necessarily modest because of public and governmental apathy, was "to get the farmer a square deal." The words were those of David Lubin, a prosperous California dry-goods dealer, born in a Polish ghetto, who almost single-handedly founded the institute. Depressed by the plight of his farmer customers during the agricultural crisis of the 1890s, he bought and managed his own fruit farm in order to study their problems. Rebuffed in his adopted country, he toured the chancelleries of Europe, preaching the importance of a healthy agriculture as a requisite of a healthy international society. Finally, Lubin found a sympathetic listener in King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. Under his patronage, the institute started functioning in Rome in 1908 as a center for the dissemination of farming news, trends, prices, statistics, and techniques. Though lacking the capacity to initiate or directly assist projects in the field, the IIA's experience as a "head office" for the collection, collation, analysis, and dissemination of data formed a useful platform for the later launching of FAO's similar but wider reaching activities in agriculture.
The League of Nations did not directly concern itself with agriculture, but work done under its auspices in the relatively new field of nutrition proved of great practical significance. Ironically, Nazi Germany, although a sardonic critic of the League, was the first country to base its wartime rationing system on the scientific standards of diet drawn up by the League for heavy workers, expectant mothers, children, and others. Soon, other countries did the same, often with striking results. In the UK, for example, the meager and often uninteresting but balanced diet dictated by the ration card actually led to an improvement in the nation's nutritional health.
FAO was the end product of a series of conferences held during World War II. In 1941, the US Nutrition Conference for Defense, attended by 900 delegates, resolved that it should be a goal of the democracies to conquer hunger, "not only the obvious hunger that man has always known, but the hidden hunger revealed by modern knowledge of nutrition." In line with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's call in 1942 for the Four Freedoms, the Australian economist Frank McDougal proposed the creation of a "United Nations program for freedom from want of food" and urged the president that food be the first economic problem tackled by the UN system being proposed for establishment when the war ended.
President Roosevelt convened the UN Conference on Food and Agriculture at Hot Springs, Virginia, in May and June 1943. The first UN conference, antedating the San Francisco Conference by two years, it established an Interim Commission on Food and Agriculture, headed by Lester B. Pearson of Canada. The commission drew up a draft constitution for FAO, thus paving the way for the first FAO Conference, held in Quebec in October 1945 and attended by 44 nations and a number of observers. On 16 October 1945, 34 nations signed the constitution that brought FAO into existence. By the end of the conference, the new organization, headed by British nutritionist Sir John Boyd Orr, had 42 member nations.