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The Politics of Hunger in the 20th Century

Many conflicts over nutrition, food and diet during the first half of the 20th century - an exceptional time of crisis and conflict - were influenced by social inequalities, local traditions, cultural values, social norms, state policies and failure in the trade market. The First World War was a breaking point within this context. Food and diet became the site of dynamic rearrangements between the state and new demanding groups in society. Workers’ unions, revolutionary movements, consumers and an emergent civil society were linked to social and economic conflicts, changing international views and politics.[1]

As a result, the inter-war years saw a close relationship grow between national social reforms and the global restructuring of the impaired global food system. Improvements in food production - including technical innovations for mass production, new delivery systems and the necessary availability of food recognised as a human right -, together with practical aspects such as food preservation, drew a lot of attention. Cooking traditions, nutritional habits and public health were understood to be a part of a global programme in which the eradication of hunger and malnutrition as a means of improving health, especially among poor and marginalised social groups, constituted an essential element in building up a global civil society.[2]

Therefore, since the start of the 20th century, hunger, nutrition and diet became a major concern for most European governments, civil society, workers’ organisations and other social and charitable entities involved in social work. Several factors were central to this process: economic ones such as food production, food industrialisation, distribution and trade, as well as those associated with quality control.[3]

Indeed, the cultural factors influencing local dietaries were also operational, e.g. the symbolic meaning and social prestige of certain foodstuffs, mainly in rural districts and among different social classes and professional groups.[4] In this context, scientific investigations propelled by research on the physiological basis of nutrition and its direct relation to health, nutritional expertise and medical advice played a civilising role.[5] All such factors shaped a network of agencies and mutual influences acting in a dynamic and complex process simultaneously.

On the other handt,h a new international scenario was configured in the first half of the 20th century as a consequence of several deep crises. Nutrition, like health itself, became an essential factor for social stability, as it influenced the changing relationships between state, society and individuals. Access to food and the entitlement to health became a basic right inherent to any human being, regardless of their race, class or nationality. Therefore, hunger became a problem to challenge, one that possessed a political, social and moral dimension. The political dimension of hunger as a factor of instability, the health and economic consequences of nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition, and the necessity to produce enough foodstuffs and make them available for all, constituted an immense political challenge. The implementation of this goal became a driving force behind social and economic change. Industrialisation and mass food production opened up a transitional path closely monitored by new regulations, which had to be negotiated, and gave way to new scientific methods of quality control. Traditional production schemes - mainly in agriculture - and old dietary habits were to be transformed, as they were potentially dangerous and could have a negative influence on both health and the economy. Under the pressure of the war and the economic crisis, food production and consumption increasingly became a concern for the international agencies and European governments, but also an essential political tool.

In the introductory chapter of the influential essay Hunger and History (1990), edited by L.F. Newman,[6] S. Milman and R. Kates start the discussion by proposing to understand hunger in history as the breakdown of the food system, as an entitlement failure connected to the lack of access to food, as well as a hazard or “threat to humans and what they value”, a permanently threatening risk. But traditionally, hunger has also been a consequence of maladjustment between population growth and the growth in food production, a perspective that is highly relevant for the long-term analysis of hunger ever since the first approaches by Thomas Malthus and Karl Marx.

This book is the result of research undertaken since 2005 on the history of the links between nutrition and health and their relationship with scientific research, economy and politics. It feeds on the archival sources of international organisations such as the League of Nations, the International Institute of Agriculture, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. A previous monograph analysed the construction of the problem of nutrition during the inter-war period.[7] The present work explores the role of nutrition in international health and the transfer of scientific knowledge in 20th - century Europe, taking as the main perspective the political economy of scientific knowledge.[8]

Recent anthropological, sociological and cultural studies on food and nutrition have shown that more than a century of increasing nutritional knowledge and dietary recommendations to the European population not only eradicated hunger, but there has also been a considerable rise in the number of overweight people and obesity.[9] Based on this evidence, new research aims to investigate the interaction between science and society and the way in which scientific knowledge is spread and popularised, and how it influences habits.[10] The negative consequences of the nutritional transition have become a source of concern for nutritionists, physicians, sociologists and political authorities.[11] To throw some light on the phenomenon, an interdisciplinary approach is needed, collaboratively involving science historians, and their discussion on the production of nutritional knowledge, economy historians, sociologists and mass media experts, to clarify the selection and diffusion of information as well as the complex topic of consumption patterns.

Food studies has recently emerged as a new and interdisciplinary approach, which considers that “food touches everything important to people”.[12] It has a double dimension, private and social, pointing out the role of agriculture, the food trade and retail sector in economic history, in relation to hunger, social conflict and state intervention in social history, with health and disease in the history of medicine and health, and with marketing, cooking and eating in cultural history.[13] Both in classic social history research and in a growing list of recent emerging approaches, food plays a prominent role.[14] Research on food and hunger has direct connections with numerous aspects of society: suffice it to mention the history of food in relation to prices, purchasing power, work capacities, household expenditure, conspicuous spending, power relations, technological and scientific progress, market regulation, health and disease, fashion, quality control, shopping and prices, import taxes, advertisements, or leisure.

In this book, the subject has been addressed from the perspective of the transfer of knowledge and the international history associated to the historiographical background of the political economy of scientific knowledge. My previous research work concentrated on the construction of the problem of nutrition in the inter-war years and the influence of the international health movement on nutrition and public health in times of crisis.[15] In approaching the complex network around health, nutrition, food production, experimental science, the food trade and patterns of consumption, interactions between the local and the international context emerged as an inescapable referent.[16] In the very complex historical landscape of the period 1918-1960, interactions between theory and practice, as well as the local, the national and the international, made it preferable to use an approach that integrated all these dimensions. Consequently, this research is oriented towards the analysis of nutrition from a European viewpoint as a paradigmatic case study.

  • [1] Slater, D., Consumer Culture and Modernity, Cambridge, 1997; Trentman, Just, 2006, p. 6.
  • [2] Trentman, Just, 2006, p. 7.
  • [3] Guillem-Llobat, X., Perdiguero, E., “Fighting adulteration in early European foodindustrialisation. The case of Alicante (Spain)”, in Vamos, E. (ed.), History of theFood Chain. From Agriculture to Consumption and Waste, Hungarian Chemical
  • [4] Society, Budapest, 2006, pp. 33-40; Guillem-Llobat, X., “Industrialitzacio ialimentacio en la societat valenciana. El control de qualitat dels aliments (18501939)”, in Herran, N. et al. (eds.), Synergia: Primer Encuentro de JovenesInvestigadores en Historia de la Ciencia, Madrid, CSIC, 2006; Guillem-Llobat, X.,“El establecimiento de nuevos llmites de calidad para los alimentos en el cambio desiglo (1880-1936)”, in Ortiz Gomez, T. et al. (eds.), La Experiencia de enfermar enperspectiva historica. ActasXIV Congreso de la Sociedad Espanola de Historia de laMedicina, Granada, Editorial Universidad de Granada, 2008b, pp. 271-274; Guillem-Llobat, X., “El paper dels laboratoris municipals valencians en el control de qualitatdels aliments (1881-1936)”, Actes del Congres de la Societat Catalana d’Histdria dela Ciencia i de la Tecnica, 2000, Vol. 1, pp. 293-300; Guillem-Llobat, 2008c,pp. 301-324. 55 Barona, 2010; Kamminga, Cunningham, 1997.
  • [5] 56 Barona, 2008a, 2008b.
  • [6] Newman, L.F. (ed.), Crossgrove, W. et al. (ass.ed.), Hunger in History: foodshortage, poverty and deprivation, Cambridge, Mass., B. Blackwell, 1990.
  • [7] Barona, 2010.
  • [8] It is a part of the research project Sanidad Internacional y transferencia deconocimiento cientfico. Europa 1900-1975 [MICINN, HAR2011-23233]. WHO’s recent report shows that between 20 and 70 % of adults in Europe areoverweight: ty/news2/news/
  • [9] 2010/12/2570-of-adults-in-europe-are-overweight (accessed: 30th March 2011).
  • [10] Scholliers, P., Food culture in Belgium, Westport & London, Greenwood Press,2008.
  • [11] Jaime, P.C., Lock, K., “Do School Based Food and Nutrition Policies Improve Dietand Reduce Obesity?”, Preventive Medicine, No. 48, 2009, 45-53.
  • [12] Counihan, C., Van Esterik, P. (eds.), Food and Culture. A Reader, London/NewYork, Routledge, 2008.
  • [13] Belasco, W. Food, Oxford/New York, Berg, 2008.
  • [14] e.g., De Vries, 2008; Jones, 2010.
  • [15] Barona, J.L. 2010.
  • [16] Barona, J.L., Bernabeu-Mestre, J., La salud y el estado. El movimiento sanitariointernationaly la administration espanola, Valencia, PUV, 2008.
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