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Hunger in Europe

Hunger and Health: a Discussion

Hunger and nutrition are essential components of individual and public health, as well as main factors for the economy, social peace and people’s wellbeing. Nowadays the availability of foodstuffs represents one of the main challenges for the United Nations, as serious shortages affect wide regions in the world, with famine and malnutrition still a terrible plight. In Europe and other parts of the world, after decades of economic growth and globalisation of the food market, a portion of humankind has achieved good nutritional standards, according to clinical and scientific patterns, as well as satisfactory levels of individual and social wellbeing. Although this statement is permanently threatened by the evolution of the chronic crisis that started in 2008, and the future of the welfare state is debatable, one can accept that the European model is still at work and that access to food constitutes a legally accepted human right. Conversely, poverty and malnutrition still pose tremendous problems for millions of human beings on most continents. At present, Europe is the most tangible exception.

A quick overview of the global situation shows that at the beginning of the 21st century about 30% of children under the age of five still suffer from severe malnutrition.[1] Ever since the inter-war period, international agencies have warned about the extension of hunger and the risk associated with chronic deficient nutrition for public health and international stability. The latest reports by the Standing Committee on Nutrition of the United Nations raise an alert about the consequences of persisting malnutrition[2] and call for globalised nutritional health to be the starting point of the implementation of human rights and the extension of democracy. Access to food is therefore a responsibility for the international community and national governments. Hunger has now become an intolerable load for poor and developing countries;[3] it is one of the main obstacles to progress and wellbeing and the largest hindrance to social, cultural and economic growth in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It is generally admitted that the fight against hunger by European governments and other Western institutions started in the 19th century. Although the traditional demographic crisis caused by famine decreased from the central decades of the 19th century, health problems associated with hungther, famine and malnutrition persisted up until the second half of the 20th century due to international conflicts, political and economic crises, as well as the effects of war and post-war depression. Factors that caused hunger and the food supply to remain big issues during the first half of the 20th century included political tensions, financial and economic crises, unemployment, trade protectionist barriers, as well as national, regional and international wars.[4]

In an earlier context, famine and starvation hit most European territories between 1846 and 1848. The great famine that shook the Irish between 1845 and 1849[5] must also be noted. The destruction of the Global Food Market, which had been built during the second half of the 19th century, was one of the outcomes of international conflicts in the first decades of the 20th century. Its negative consequences affected the most vulnerable sectors of the population, such as children, women and the elderly. These groups, together with the unemployed, those living in the country and other citizens, fell prey to marginality. They became the victims of alimentary deficiencies, starvation, chronic malnutrition and several health problems caused by the international blockade, difficulties in the food supply and extended conflicts. War was a fundamental and usual cause of famine and malnutrition in the first half of the 20th century, and the examples of Russia (1919), Ukraine (193233), Greece (1941-42) and The Netherlands (1944-45) illustrate the reach of the problem. Although the political, social and economic consequences of war were possibly the most important causes behind famine and malnutrition in Europe during the middle decades of the 20th century, the wrong agricultural policies, isolation and totalitarianism also contributed to reinforcing the problem.[6]

  • [1] On the prevalence of malnutrition affecting child populations and present globaltendencies, see De Onls, M., Blossner, M., “The World Health Organization GlobalDatabase on Child Growth and Malnutrition: methodology and applications”,International Journal of Epidemiology, No. 32, 2003, pp. 518-526.
  • [2]
  • [3] Svedberg, P., Poverty and undernutrition. Theory, measurement, and policy. With aforeword by Amartya Sen, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000; Bhargava A.,Food, economics, and health, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • [4] Bengtsson, T., Saito, O. (eds.), Population and economy. From hunger to moderneconomic growth, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000. About famine andstarvation, a global perspective could be found in О Grada, C., Famine: A ShortHistory, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • [5] Mokyr, J., О Grada, C., “What do people die of during famines: the Great IrishFamine in comparative perspective”, European Review of Economic History, No. 6,2002, pp. 339-363; Lindeboom, F., Portrait, F., Van den Berg, G.J., “Long-runeffects on longevity of a nutritional shock early in life: the Dutch Potato Famine of1846-1847”, International Journal of Epidemiology, No. 29, 2010, pp. 617-629.
  • [6] Sen, A., Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Oxford,Clarendon Press, 1982.
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