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

New Experts and New Institutions in the Fight against Hunger

Since its foundation, the League of Nations got involved in health problems. Its Council drew up a scheme for a Health Organisation as early as in February 1920. Several steps forward led to the constitution of a Health Committee (Geneva, August 1921) and a cooperative strategy with the Office International d’Hygiene Publique, in Paris, the International Labour Organisation [ILO] and the International Institute of Agriculture [IIA], in Rome.[1] A Health Committee, an Advisory Council, and a Health Section of the Secretariat constituted a complex administrative framework devoted to the coordination of an ambitious programme in international health. The series of Annual Reports, the

Bulletin of the Health Organisation, the Annual and Monthly Epidemiological Reports, the Weekly Epidemiological Records (Geneva), and the Weekly Fasciculus (Singapore) summarised the main trends of intense activity in international health.[2]

The first technical reports by the Health Organisation of the League of Nations date back to 1926, with a wide range of documents on nutrition-related aspects.[3] All of them emphasised the importance of developing a science of nutrition as a point of departure, to challenge the nutritional requirements of the global population. These scientific studies had to have both a social and experimental orientation, and include standardising methods to study dietary needs, the links between nutrition, agriculture, the economy and public health, especially in rural areas, statistics in countries and regions, as well as reports on the real feeding restrictions in Europe and the diseases caused by them. Meaningful players such as John Maynard Keynes, Jean Monnet and Albert Thomas, all advocated intervention in food production and consumption as one of the best alternatives to tackle economic instability.[4]

Most of the technical and social studies of nutrition in the 1920s and 1930s focused on European countries (Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Hungary, The Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Portugal and Sweden). Europe was the centre of the crisis. The


consequences of war, international conflicts and financial chaos could explain a concern basically focused on European regions.

The emergence of a science of nutrition, based on experimental principles, involved, on the one hand, expertise based on new methods and, on the other, technologies to survey and evaluate the nutritional condition of the population and its impact on public health. Moreover, it required political measures to rearrange agriculture and commercial networks, as well as education to change the population’s negative habits. The huge impact of malnutrition and deficiency diseases associated with dietary problems during the post-war years gave scientific authority to nutritionists. They increasingly had a scientific approach based on experimental research on bodily energy needs and on the physiological contribution of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Politicians and economists turned their eyes to the new science of nutrition as a starting point of a steady solution.

In 1925 a proposal from the Yugoslav delegation to the Assembly of the League of Nations requested the Health Committee to study “the methods to be recommended in the interests of public health for the regulation of the manufacture and of the sale of food products”. Shortly after, in 1926, the Health Organisation published a collection of memoranda on the physiology of nutrition and its clinical meaning.[5] In 1927 the specialist on the physiology of nutrition T. Saiki gave several lectures on nutrition in the USA, Argentina, Brazil and Chile under the auspices of the League of Nations. In 1926 and 1927 the League of Nations’ Health Organisation promoted a visit by Egerton Grey, a professor at the University of Cairo, to Tokyo. He published an internal report about The Food of Japan following the visit.[6]

During the 13th session of the Health Committee held in 1928, Leon Bernard, a delegate of the French Government, asked for nutrition to be included into the Committee’s work programme. As we know, the situation became more urgent and dramatic the following year. Based on its interest in nutrition, a collective tour of the Health Committee to the

USA took place in 1931 in order to study the supply of milk; a year later the Government of Chile requested collaboration from the League of Nations to carry out a study of popular nutrition in Chile.

In 1932 general concerns arose about the consequences of the crisis and, as a result, the 19th session of the Health Committee undertook a study on the effects of the economic crisis on public health, with particular reference to the undernourishment conditions caused by the recession. Two conferences of experts were convened in connection with the studies on nutrition. The first one was the Experts Conference held in Rome in September 1932 and the second one was held in Berlin in December 1932. Against the backdrop of these two conferences, there was an implicit call for experimental science and technical expertise to consider the principles of an adequate diet as a means to overcome the economic crisis.[7]

By 1932 the problem of nutrition was fully integrated in the international agenda due to exceptional circumstances. In accordance with the recommendation of the Berlin Conference and the invitation of the Council of the League of Nations, the Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation pooled their efforts to study the most suitable methods for safeguarding public health in times of depression. A Joint Conference of Experts in Sanitary Administration and Social Insurance promoted by the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation, including members from Belgium, the United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, the United States of America and Yugoslavia, met on two occasions under the chairmanship of M.G. Cahen-Salvador, a State Councillor in Paris.[8]

A couple of years later, in September 1935, the General Assembly of the League of Nations, having considered the subject of nutrition in relation to public health and the effects of improved nutrition on the consumption of agricultural products, urged Governments to examine the practical means of securing better nutrition and invited the Health Organisation to continue and extend its work on nutrition in relation to international public health.[9] Furthermore, it requested the Council to instruct the technical organisation of the League of Nations, in consultation with the International Labour Office and the International Institute of Agriculture, to collect, summarise and publish information on the measures taken in all countries for securing improved nutrition. The Assembly also proposed to appoint a Committee, including agricultural, economic and health experts, instructed to submit a general report on the whole question.[10]

Some months before, in June 1935, the 19th session of the ILO had voted in favour of a resolution that unanimously recognised that adequate nutrition was essential for the wellbeing of workers and their families. Similarly, the resolution admitted that large numbers of people in many countries were not sufficiently nourished. The ILO resolution stated that an increase in consumption of agricultural foodstuffs would help to raise the standards of living and relieve the depression in agriculture. The ILO Conference requested the Governing body to continue investigations in collaboration with Health and Economic Organisations of the League of Nations, the IIA and others.

As a consequence of the international organisations’ agreement on the wide dimension of the hunger problem and the necessity of collaboration, a mixed technical commission was founded and held in London between November 25 and 29, 1935. The mixed commission had to prepare a “Report on the Physiological Basis of Nutrition”.[11] This report was of a preliminary nature and therefore included a general assessment of the nutrition issue, embodying suggestions by the Mixed Committee to the Assembly and giving an overview of the problems involved. Three more volumes reported on the physiological basis of nutrition, according to the Technical Commission of the Health Committee and the state of nutrition in various countries. The volumes summarised the available data delivered by governments that replied to the Secretary-General’s Circular letter of November 30, 1935. It contained a survey of popular dietaries since the war and a summary of statistical materials. The last part included statistics of food production, consumption and prices in several countries.

The Mixed Committee consisted of experts representing not only the League of Nations but also the International Labour Office and the International Institute of Agriculture, which means that access to foodstuffs and the fight against hunger was given worldwide priority in the international policies of the 1930s. The Mixed Committee was especially concerned with the nutritional needs of the lower-income sections of the community - children and the unemployed - and sought to ensure an adequate food supply, particularly of protective foods, at prices affordable by all social groups. A main challenge was the safeguard of the interests of producers as cornerstones of the system. Therefore, improving the marketing and distribution of foodstuffs and reducing their costs both in the cities and in industrial and rural areas was necessary, encouraging collaboration between cooperatives and other forms of producers’ and consumers’ organisations.

  • [1] Dubin, M., “The League of Nations Health Organization”, in Weindling, P. (ed.),International health organisations and movements, 1918-1939, Cambridge,Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 56-80.
  • [2] A summary of the activities developed by the League of Nations can be found in“Bibliography of the Technical Work of the Health Organisation of the League ofNations, 1920-1945”, League of Nations Bulletin of the Health Organisation,Vol. 11, 1945, p. 6.
  • [3] Boxes in the Archive of the League of Nations (Geneva) containing specificinformation on nutrition include R.6133 to R.6140. Some internal reports related tothe period 1928-1937 (R.5865-5866) are devoted to nutrition. See also Saiki, T.,Necessity of the Study of Nutrition, Geneva, League of Nations, 1927. DocumentR.5910 analyses food supplies, reparation and distribution (1929). It also includedsome other internal documents on food supplies: preparations alleged to containvitamins (1929-1932) and food supplies, standardisation of vitamins (1930-1932)(Documents R.5921 y R.6078-79). Documents R.5935 and R.6009 (1932) wereentirely devoted to food supplies, production and distribution of vitamin standards.Document R.5936 contains an Etude de l’etat alimentaire (1932-3) and also severalEtudes sur la meilleure utilisation, pour l’alimentation des budgets reduits (1932-3).
  • [4] Barona, 2010.
  • [5] Saiki, T., Progress of the Science of Nutrition in Japan, Geneva, League of Nations,1926. It was followed by Saiki 1927.
  • [6] The Food of Japan. Internal report. Archive of the League of Nations Doc CH 861.
  • [7] Information about these conferences in Quarterly Bulletin of the League of Nations,Vol. I., 1932-1933, No. 3 and Vol. II, 1933, No. 1.
  • [8] “Report of the Health Organisation for the Period October 1932 to September 1933.IV. Economic Depression and Public Health”, League of Nations Quarterly Bulletinofthe Health Organisation, 1933, Vol. 2, pp. 529-535.
  • [9] The Problem of Nutrition. Interim Report of the Mixed Committee on the Problem ofNutrition, 3 vols., Geneva, Series of League of Nations Publications, 1936 [TechnicalReport A.12.1936.II.B].
  • [10] Ibidem, 1936, p. 7-8.
  • [11] “Report on the Physiological Bases of Nutrition by the Technical Commission of theHealth Committee in the meeting held in London, November 25-29, 1935”, Leagueof Nations Quarterly Bulletin of the Health Organisation, 1936, Vol. 5, No. 3,pp. 391-415.
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