We Cannot Build Peace on Empty Stomachs

Norman Borlaug? John Boyd Orr? George C. Marshall?

Dear Quote Investigator: Human deprivation engenders unrest, violence, and war. The following saying has been credited to Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who contributed to large increases in agricultural productivity:

You can’t build peace on empty stomachs.

The statement has also been attributed to Nobel laureate John Boyd Orr, a doctor who worked to improve food production and distribution. Would you please explore the expression’s provenance?

Quote Investigator: In 1945 John Boyd Orr was elected a Member of Parliament in the U.K. In 1946 the House of Commons discussed the “World Food Situation”, and Orr said the following as recorded in the Hansard: 1

This country had such a good and well organised food policy during the war, and our prestige stands very high. Therefore, I hope the Government will wholeheartedly support this new Food Council, and will accept its instructions and carry them out as far as possible. I believe that by doing so, we shall make a very great contribution to peace. After all, famine is the greatest of all politicians. We cannot build peace on empty stomachs.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1950 an essay by G. M. White in “Ladies’ Home Journal” included a thematically similar passage: 2

A child gets hungry every day; the conditions under which he lives do not improve as rapidly as his stomach empties. “The needs are the same,” a missionary in China reports, “no matter what the political rule, for there isn’t enough food here to fill empty stomachs.” Starving, ailing children are the seedbed for still more horrible wars. Providing for the health and well-being of all the world’s children is the surest way to a better world.

In September 1950 politician A. N. McLean speaking in the Senate of Canada credited Orr with an instance of the saying: 3

As the great Sir John Boyd Orr has stated, it is hard indeed to build peace where there are empty stomachs.

George C. Marshall famously proposed the Marshall Plan for post-WW2 economic recovery. In 1953 he won Nobel Peace Prize, and his Nobel Lecture contained a thematically related observation: 4

Tyranny inevitably must retire before the tremendous moral strength of the gospel of freedom and self-respect for the individual, but we have to recognize that these democratic principles do not flourish on empty stomachs, and that people turn to false promises of dictators because they are hopeless and anything promises something better than the miserable existence that they endure.

In 1970 Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize, and in his Nobel Lecture he referred to Orr’s remark: 5

Perhaps no one in recent times has more pungently expressed the interrelationship of food and peace than Nobel Laureate Lord John Boyd Orr, the great crusader against hunger and the first director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, with his famous words, “You can’t build peace on empty stomachs.”

In conclusion, John Boyd Orr should receive credit for his 1946 statement about empty stomachs. Norman Borlaug echoed the remark in 1970, but he credited Orr.

(Great thanks to Timothy Zee whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Zee pointed to Borlaug’s Nobel Lecture and other useful citations. )


  1. 1946 May 31, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, World Food Situation, Speaking: Sir J. Boyd Orr (Combined Scottish Universities), HC Deb, volume 423, cc1490-578. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on March 25, 2018) link
  2. 1950 May, Ladies’ Home Journal, For All the World’s Children by G. M. White, Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1950 September 8, Canada: The Debates of the Senate, Official Report (Hansard), Speaker: Hon. A. N. McLean, Start Page 67, Quote Page 68, Column 2, King’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa, Canada. (Accessed via Library of Parliament canadiana.ca on March 25, 2018) link
  4. 1953 December 11, Speech delivered in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo, The Nobel Peace Prize 1953, Title: Essentials to Peace, Author: George C. Marshall, (From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972), Nobel Foundation, Stockholm. (Accessed at nobelprize.org on March 25, 2018) link
  5. 1970 December 11, Speech delivered at the auditorium of the Nobel Institute, The Nobel Peace Prize 1970, Title: The Green Revolution, Peace, and Humanity, Author: Norman Borlaug, (From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972) Nobel Foundation, Stockholm. (Accessed at nobelprize.org on March 25, 2018) link