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


Hunger at the Crossroads

The expansion of liberal democracies in Western countries since the second half of the 19th century contributed to transforming the social role of the state, particularly in areas such as education, transport, communication, infrastructures, health care and social assistance.

Gradually, since the early 20th century, the state emerged as the social guarantor of civil rights and citizens’ wellbeing and as a regulator of social inequalities. State and collective interests were identified as being the same thing. The state therefore assumed the responsibility of organising and directing the future of the nation. It created a rational bureaucracy and intervention policies, taking on the political and intellectual project of the Enlightenment ideology of achieving social justice.

Among the strong elements in this construction process was the new cultural, social, political and economic significance of hunger, food and diet. With the right to being healthy considered an attribute of citizenship, the right to decent and sufficient food came next. A poor diet was deemed to be the threshold of infection, and so microbes and foodstuffs drew the attention of physicians and hygienists. The confluence of such a wide range of elements helps us understand the interest in identifying deficiency diseases and in defining the concept of deficiency disease, undernourishment and malnutrition, according to scientific parameters.

Due to its multiple dimensions affecting agriculture, the economy, health and war, diet and nutrition became a central issue in Europe between 1918 and 1960. A first aspect to consider is the political and military dimension of hunger. In times of crisis and war, it was urgent to ensure a minimum diet for the whole population and, in particular, to avoid famine in specific risk groups: children, mothers, pregnant women, elderly people, patients, soldiers, refugees, prisoners and unemployed workers. Secondly, the economic dimension of the food supply became especially relevant as a result of the deterioration of the global food system, which had been built up in the second half of the 19th century. War conflicts and the 1929 economic and financial splash caused food production and food trade to collapse worldwide, with terrible consequences in the 1930s, leading to World War II. In a purely commercial sense, the crisis of the global food system did not only result in scarcity and a high cost of living but also gave way to protectionism and the return of protection in domestic markets. All such factors encouraged the growing industrialisation of more and more foodstuffs (milk, chocolate, oil, sugar, bread, etc) as opposed to traditional manufacturing. The food industry demanded the regulation and control of production processes, strict surveillance of fraud and adulteration, and the control of additives, colourings and preservatives, as well as hygienic conditions in the final foodstuffs for the consumer at the end of the chain. Basically, new rules were needed to stake the boundaries of what was permissible and what was unacceptable in human diets, a debate whose backdrop was the natural/artificial divide.

The cultural dimension of hunger and nutrition soon emerged from the economic, sanitary and political importance. Hygienists and politicians became aware of the deep differences in dietary and cooking habits and traditions that were not only due to the level of income. Cultural habits also influenced dietary differences between cities and the countryside in the same country and between European regions. It was necessary to analyse nutritional needs in age groups and according to gender, for manual and factory workers, farmers and more sedentary professionals. This need prompted surveys and reports that intended to map nutrition and hunger, to be used as a basis for political action, rationing policies, health care and social protection.

Scientific knowledge - the new experimental science of nutrition - was to become the cornerstone of a healthy diet and the reference for food production and consumption. That required solid physiological grounds at the laboratory in relation to calorie coefficients, the need for nutritional principles, tables of foodstuff values in calories, nutrients, vitamins and minerals. The parameters of the optimum diet and the requirements of the minimum diet had to be accurately defined to be able to apply this knowledge to rationing strategies in times of war and scarcity. That was also essential for the organisation of food relief. In turn, the establishment of physiological standards of nourishment had to determine the boundaries of normality and pathology, defining the concepts of food deficiency, undernourishment and malnutrition.

The figure of the nutrition expert (dietician, nutritionist) stood out in the challenge of establishing physiological, clinical or anthropometric exploration methods to conceptualise and delimit all types of deficiency diseases and malnutrition in children and adults. In this way, during the inter-war period, hunger and nutrition opened up an avenue for the medicalisation of diets, the spread of medical knowledge, the development of a powerful food industry and international food trade networks.

In sum, hunger, nutrition and diet were closely linked to the new social construction of health as a human right, and reached economic and political importance in order to harmonise food production, trade and demands, since dietary habits brought to light traditions that were contrary to the new logic of nutritional science and the evolution of the food market.

Once the parameters of the problem of nutrition had been set, an economic and political strategy had to be put forward in order to resolve it. Obviously, the answer was to build a new system of scientific knowledge production and to transform social practices; a new culture was needed in food and consumption, in the regulation of what could be eaten, and in the redefinition of the social and cultural meaning of food.

This strategy was mainly promoted by international organisations and by the states both from local and national levels and with a multidimensional focus on the transformation of the food production system, the regulation of industrial production and the control of quality, fraud and adulteration.

Collaboration between national and international institutions was essential. National governments coordinated public policies according to international standards. The League of Nations Health Committee, the International Institute of Agriculture, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organisation and the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation worked together to play a major role. Joint Expert Committees on Nutrition worked for decades to establish physiological standards for food and patterns for a healthy diet, surveying the nutritional state of the population, changing dietary habits and fighting malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies in many parts of the world. International trade had to be rebuilt and substantially transformed and the exceptional situation caused by the war confronted. Diet habits also had to be changed on the basis of scientifically defined patterns, and health levels had to be improved by means of a balanced diet.

The foundations of this new social, political and economic architecture were found in the onset of a new experimental science of nutrition based on exact physiological concepts (calorie, nutrient, protein, etc) that enabled scientists to draw the border between health and pathology. That was the main argument that legitimated experts and the creation of international commissions of nutrition experts and conferences to discuss different aspects of the subject. The tragic aftermath of the world wars, the Spanish Civil War, the famine crisis in the Netherlands, Poland, Russia and Greece, urged an international response and provided an excellent testing ground for the new science of nutrition.

The international construction of a political economy of hunger and nutrition gathered momentum between 1918 and 1960. International intervention took on the form of a network of expert commissions drawn from national and international levels. Their work was mainly focused on the following practical programme:

1. Implementation of surveys and reports on diet and food consumption habits in different European countries and on the specific consumption of meat, rice, milk, fresh vegetables, fruit or sugar. They also included studies on specific social groups such as pregnant women, children, industrial workers, peasants or the unemployed. This work was encouraged and supported by international organisations and philanthropic groups.

  • 2. Implementation of public health strategies by national schools of hygiene, aimed at training health professionals as nutrition specialists, and programming information campaigns for the population to change their dietary habits. Basically, the goal was to educate according to the scientific principles of nutrition.
  • 3. Development of empirical methodology based on the research undertaken by specialists in food surveys, with a dual orientation: social surveys and studies on dietary habits, and clinical exploration methods to assess the health condition of the population.

The starting point of the latter was experimental physiology, complemented by anthropometric, clinical and physio-pathological studies. They intended to identify, with scientific-experimental parameters, the nutritional state of individuals and populations, identifying the presence of deficiency diseases such as beriberi, pellagra, scurvy, neuropathies due to nutritional deficiencies, as well as different malnutrition levels.

Such an ambitious programme made necessary the validation of empirical methodology and required an agreement concerning the standards of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in a balanced daily diet. Experimental research was called on to lay down the standards for adequate nutrition, and a new language also emerged from the new experimental science: optimum and minimum diets were typified; the protection of food was defined and supplementary foods classified; calorie methods and energy coefficients were established; dietary standards for specific populations were recommended; and nutritional values and principles, basal metabolism, calorie requirements, family coefficient scales in rationing were standardised and applied in rationing policies.

A large body of experimental knowledge started to be developed as a basis for the clinical categorisation of undernourishment, malnutrition and obesity, as well as a range of new clinical entities associated with specific deficiencies of one or more nutritional principles. This was the starting point for political action, economy planning and industrial production. As a regulating, stabilising, disciplining and civilising agent, the State - assisted by large international corporations, international agencies and philanthropic organisations - promoted community nutrition policies and trained nutritionists to become experts. It also organised campaigns from the sections of food hygiene and community nutrition of the National Schools of Hygiene and the National Institutes for Mother and Children Care with a view to influencing mothers and modifying cooking traditions, given that women are the main channel of diet information and practices within the family. From the second half of the 1930s Institutes of Food Hygiene sprang up across Europe with a view to implementing rationing policies in times of crisis, war and postwar years.

During the middle decades of the 20th century, nutrition concentrated on a series of aspects that made it an expression of the emergence of experimental knowledge, its circulation and transfer into social practices. The nutritional status of the population was not traditionally a matter linked to the political economy or state policy. Conversely, hunger was connected to poverty, and nutritional habits were considered part of a culture, a reflection of income and social status, lacking any moral or sanitary implications.[1] It was the advent of the state as a social regulator in the complex situation of the first half of the 20th century that placed hunger and feeding at a complex crossroads at which citizenship, culture, economy and health played a meaningful role.[2] Food availability became a challenge in many regions for most citizens. Shortages and famines, fears of deprivation and food regulations were a common European experience during the period 1918-1960. Market and food production, nutrition and conflict stressed the emergence of a global food system starting in the late 19th century, which suddenly experienced a deep crisis in the following years in an era of wars, increasing intervention by the state and rising economic nationalism.

  • [1] Vernon, J., “The Ethics of Hunger and the Assembly of Society: The Techno-Politicsof the School Meal in Modern Britain”, American Historical Review, No. 110, 2005,pp. 693-725.
  • [2] Barona, J.L., “Rural Life and the Problem of Nutrition. Technical Approaches by theNutrition Committee of the League of Nations”, in Andresen, A., Gronlie, T.,Ryymin, T. (eds.), Science, Culture and Politics. European Perspectives onMedicine, Sickness and Health, Bergen, Stein Rokkan Centre for Social Studies,2006, pp. 201-214; Smith, D.F., Phillips, J. (eds.), Food, Science, Policy andRegulation in the Twentieth Century. International and Comparative Perspectives,London, Routledge, 2000; Vernon J., 2005; Barona, J.L., “Nutrition and Health. TheInternational Context during the Inter-war Crisis,’ Social History of Medicine,No. 21,2008, pp. 87-105.
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