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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960



The articulation of the previously mentioned aspects into a comprehensive explanation of the political economy of knowledge on nutrition, hunger and health in Europe in the middle decades of the 20th century requires the integration of at least the following elements and perspectives, considered in the present book:

1. A general picture, inclusive of a pattern of interactions between the production of scientific knowledge on health, hunger and nutrition, and its social and political use in the period 1918-1960, taking into consideration the influence of critical factors such as the economic crisis, World War I, World War II, the Spanish Civil War, social revolutions and international tensions in the inter-war period, as well as the Cold War.

Relevant aspects of the problem researched have to be considered and discussed in depth. These include: the discussions about international standards; the agreements on statistical methods and technical surveys; the preparation and discussion of the reports presented to the international agencies and groups of experts on the effects of hunger and malnutrition about certain groups of the European population; and the particularities of the problems affecting the rural population and community nutrition services.

  • 2. It is essential to discuss the concepts of circulation of knowledge and transfer of scientific knowledge within the framework of health, nutrition and diet, and to try to understand the historical background from the perspective of the political economy of knowledge. Households, private kitchens and culinary habits are not considered in this book. Conversely, scientists, nutritionists, industries, politicians, traders, peasants and farmers, as well as particular social groups are to be analysed as the main performers of an active platform trying to influence citizens’ behaviour in the context of tensions between scientific knowledge, feeding habits and food availability.
  • 3. An analysis of the clinical, anthropometric, psychological and statistical criteria proposed by institutions, physicians, medical inspectors, authorities, etc., to establish standards of nutrition and patterns of health and optimum diet, including experimental, clinical and statistical strategies to clearly differenciate the healthy citizen from the population affected by deficiency diseases and malnutrition. New categories to identify nosological entities that shared experimental and clinical data.
  • 4. A central aspect of the research involves analysing the dimensions of health problems associated with hunger and deficiency diseases in Europe between 1918 and 1960, to assess the political and economic impact of hunger as a health problem and also the task developed by national institutions (National Food Institutes, National Schools of Health, public canteens, rationing programmes) and international organisations (IIA, FAO, WHO, League of Nations, Rockefeller Foundation) in the establishment of patterns of measure, diagnosis, technological developments and political campaigns of intervention.
  • 5. To understand the social dynamics of the political economy of knowledge and practices related to hunger, diet and health, it is also necessary to analyse the agents that intervene in the process of the transfer and circulation of knowledge, agreements on food safety, and their impact in the production and process of industrialisation of food and in public health.

6. The mutual interaction between national interests and programmes, and international proposals based on technical approaches and expertise with a more global perspective, help identify the problems in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, as well as in the education of citizens.

The far-reaching demographic catastrophe and political and economic international crisis caused by the Great War (1914-1918), and the period of conflicts until World War II, together with the financial and economic recession following the economic slump that started in 1927, transformed the global food market. The restoration of the food chain became a considerable political and economic concern, with clear repercusions on the nutrition and health standards of the European population. This book seeks to throw some light on the importance of hunger, malnutrition and health impairment in this historical context. It will also analyse the implication of the states’ governments and interna?tional organisations in the creation of a new political and economic order.

The historical analysis of the political economy of hunger and health emerged in Europe in the period 1918-1960, and it requires the following aspects to be taken into consideration:

A cartography of hunger, considering as main sources national and international surveys during the economic crisis, and the war and postwar periods.

The importance, if any, of the international action taken by the international conferences and technical reports of experts of the League of Nations, the International Labour Office, the International Institute of Agriculture, the FAO and the WHO.

The evaluation of the impairment of the health condition of the European population directly or indirectly caused by hunger, a deficient diet and malnutrition, especially in rural areas. The influence of war and the economic crisis of the 1930s were especially important.

The politics of scientific research on nutrition and diet, as well as rationing policies derived from the calculation of the physiological values of the minimum diet and the optimum diet, and the parameters to calculate the dietary standards for families and special groups, such as the unemployed, families at risk of exclusion, pregnant women and babies, soldiers, patients, prisoners, refugees, etc.

It is also extremely important to analyse the consequences of famine and malnutrition in internment, concentration and refugee camps. These closed institutions represented an experimental laboratory for the clinical and experimental analysis of the resilience of the human body under extreme exhaustion.

The strategies of governments (Institutes of Nutrition, National Schools of Health, rationing policies) within a framework of international collaboration (the commissions of nutrition experts of the League of Nations, the OIT, the FAO and the WHO), concurrence and tension.

The historical sources listed in the final chapter of this book, archive documents and printed sources include, inter alia:

a) Technical reports, conferences and recommendations of the Commission of Experts of the League of Nations, the mixed committee of the League of Nations, as well as the FAO and the WHO on the state of nutrition of the European population. b) World Food Surveys and regional reports and conferences promoted by the FAO since the late 1940s.

c) Specific studies on malnutrition and the extent of malnutrition in zones of war and in post-war periods. Particularly important are the reports of experts on the Spanish population during the Civil War, and those that analyse the consequences of hunger and famine in Europe during World War II and the post-war years.

A particular consequence of the transformation in food production and food consumption is the food safety issue associated with the fraud and adulteration of foodstuffs. At the end of the 19th century some international initiatives were proposed with a view to agreeing on a definition of fraud and its scope, and some regulations and methods of analysis were developed and standardised in order to homogenise international strategies of quality control. Apparently, these initiatives reached a new dimension, and more technological tools were developed in the early 20th century, when the first initiatives for the international standardisation of food quality emerged. Some of those initiatives created preferential spaces for the transfer of knowledge between national experts and a diversity of professionals. In that context, France took on a new leadership role in the promotion of the regulation of food safety and powerful private enterprises were set up, such as the Foundation of the White Cross in Geneva.[1]

  • [1] Guillem-Llobat, 2008e, pp. 215-246.
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