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


Agriculture at the Service of Nutrition

The inter-war crisis forced the state to play an important, active role in improving the availability of foodstuffs for the lower-income sections of the community. In some countries this was done through unemployment insurance policies, minimum wage laws, old age pensions and other social services that made the income of the working classes more secure against cyclical fluctuations.[1] A decline in the average size of the family added to the general rise of national revenues, a further argument to support the redistribution role of the State.

Controlling agricultural prices to guarantee the availability of farming produce to all the population was essential to political economics.

In addition to economic and technical factors, consumer education also played an important part in overcoming the crisis; the new science of nutrition had disseminated among an ever-increasing portion of the population knowledge on the nutritive values of foods. For those that could afford a liberal diet, an abundance of green vegetables, fruit and milk was considered to be more important and richer as a source of mineral matter than wheat bran and wheat germ. Another example used by nutritionists to show the harmful effects of prejudice and ignorance was the decreased consumption of skimmed milk, not substituted by whole milk as desirable, but by a reduction of total milk consumption to the extent that in certain countries and social groups milk was not considered a foodstuff but a medicine.

The core question was to determine to what extent agriculture production had adapted to changes in demand. Changes were expected to occur gradually as the newer knowledge of nutrition was disseminated among wider groups of the population: the general income rose, private diet habits changed and special actions were taken by the states to improve the nutritional conditions of particular groups of the population. There was a direct relationship between changes in consumption habits and changes in the demand, which in turn required changes in production and the food supply. Two main words were uttered by both experts and economists: adjustment and adaptation.

In attempting to define the effort of adaptation required in the important field of agriculture, emphasis was placed on two points. First, nutrition policy did not involve a rapid transformation in the existing structure of national agricultural systems. Second, as nutritional policy moved towards its objective of an adequate diet for all, an increase in the demand for all classes of agricultural products was predicted. The demand for protective foods was expected to rise more than the demand for those chiefly consumed for their high-energy value.

But in times of crisis the main concerns were not only the changing habits and energy requirements of the population. The first aim of nutrition policy was to ensure that all sections of the population could afford a sufficient amount of calories. The main tendencies observed suggested that for a long time to come, taking the world as a whole, the increase in the demand for energy-bearing foods among populations suffering from malnutrition would counterbalance the fall in the demand for cereals. It was clear, therefore, that nutrition policy by no means required a drastic shift from the production of energy-bearing foods to the production of protective foods, nor did it require that agriculture should produce protective foods in advance of the market.[2]

Agricultural adaptation was essential for tackling the complex situation of nutrition, health and the economy, but important obstacles had to be removed for agriculture to be adapted to the new consumption trends and demands. Special attention had to be paid to the importance of natural conditions and agricultural productive systems in each country. A great deal of capital was needed and the international financial situation was not optimistic at all. On the other hand, culture and tradition played a central role in dietary habits, which appeared to be a factor of deep concern in terms of reaching the hard target of adapting production and habits to scientific patterns. More pragmatic obstacles were to be mentioned too: a low level of agricultural technique and the lack of an efficient transport system for commercial networks, since the perishability of certain protective foods made it difficult to ensure availability to all potential consumers.

During the post-1929 crisis period, some national and international agencies certainly made attempts to overcome some large hurdles and assist agriculture in its task of adaptation. Now and again governmental policy and state social programmes became very important, since changes in production, the evolution of agricultural prices and the links between income and nutrition habits were crucial aspects of the problem.[3] In some countries legislation was enacted,[4] as economic depression and the agricultural crisis hindered the availability of food and a price reduction policy was recommended. The prosperity of farmers, peasants and agricultural workers was considered to be an essential element in any policy intended to improve nutrition. Even agricultural practices had to be adapted to meet the new requirements.

As far as the demand tended to be transferred from energy-producing foods to protective foods, the prices of these two categories did not fail to adjust themselves in the same proportion. This adaptation had to act, in itself, as an effective regulator of production. In conclusion, the experts found good reasons to believe that the trend of dietary habits towards a larger consumption of protective foods, particularly in Western countries, would coincide with a parallel evolution in agricultural production, which would in all probability benefit the rural populations of the various countries, and might also greatly contribute to a resumption of normal economic relations between the nations.[5]

Concern was expressed about the steps to be taken to meet the nutritional needs of the lower-income sections of the community, to ensure an adequate food supply at prices within the reach of all classes. This safeguarded the interests of producers and improved and reduced the cost of marketing and distribution of foodstuffs both in industrial and rural areas, encouraging collaboration between cooperatives and other forms of producers’ and consumers’ organisations. An international food policy also involved the international unification of the technical control of foodstuffs, setting up standards of reference and specifications for grading foods of all kinds according to quality. A coordination of the work of different authorities affecting nutrition and food control was necessary and national statistics on food supply and consumption had to be improved. The International Institute of Agriculture was requested to collect information regarding supply, national consumption and prices.[6]

The IIA in Rome contributed fundamental materials and provided information on the consumption of foodstuffs, as well as on trends in production, prices and consumption, particularly milk and fresh vegetables in large cities. The international programme also collected data on the financial aspects of assistance to national agriculture in various countries, and studied wholesale and retail prices, particularly of protective foods, relating prices to trends in production and consumption in different countries.[7]

The enormous differences in the diet of western countries were not considered to be accidental but a consequence of local traditions and the changing structure of the labour system. A main tendency was the reduced use of muscular energy as a result of increased mechanisation in industry and agriculture, and a reduction in the hours worked.[8] Improvements in housing were considered a way to reduce the amount of food required to keep the body at a constant temperature. The use of automobiles and rapid transport that reduced the amount of walking meant that less energy would be spent. Changes in the nature of work and life in modern societies had resulted in changes in food requirements.

Obviously, during the Depression years, European agriculture had to adapt to new realities. As general income rose, special action would have to be taken to improve the nutrition of particular groups. Changes in consumption habits implied changes in the demand and required transformations in the production and food supply. In attempting to define the effort of adaptation required for agriculture, particular attention was paid to two points: nutrition policy should not involve a rapid transformation in the existing structure of national agricultural systems and, as nutritional policy moved towards its objective of an adequate diet for all, an increase in the demand for all classes of agricultural products was expected.[9]

The prosperity of farmers, peasants and agricultural workers was therefore considered an essential element in policies directed towards improved nutrition, but agricultural practice had to be adapted to meet the new requirements.[10] Considering the negative effects of the Depression and the agricultural crisis on the nutritional state of the population, one important method of making food available at reduced prices was that of reducing the services provided by the distributor and considering the positive influence, in this field of action, exercised by producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives. In many countries, these organisations achieved considerable success in their endeavours to reduce the cost of goods to the consumer.[11]

From the political perspective, improved nutrition had to yield immediate general benefits to agriculture and fishing. Better nutrition implied an increase in demand for foodstuffs, which meant greater agricultural activity. Certain adjustments in agricultural production would be required: “While national agricultural systems will thus benefit by the growth in the demand particularly for the more perishable protective foods, countries producing for export will benefit, as the primary needs of the poorer classes for energy-producing and less perishable protective foods are more adequately satisfied”.[12] Adaptation in industry, commerce or agriculture also required financial support by national and international agencies and the stimulus of agricultural cooperation. The state had an important role to play facilitating the adaptation of agriculture to changes and so the problem of nutrition suddenly became a matter of state.

In this critical context, tensions between economic agents, states and experts were expected to come into play. No specific references were made during the big depression to the influence of black markets, a problem that became increasingly present in the war and post-war years. While individual countries were absolutely free and autonomous to make decisions about their own commercial interests and policies, experts and international agencies called for one basic principle to be universally accepted: that adequate nutrition was the main factor determining all policies.[13] Due to its worldwide dimension, the problem of hunger, nutrition and food production required international collaboration and consultation through national boards and international agencies. From an international perspective, “the malnutrition which exists in all countries is at once a challenge and an opportunity: a challenge to men’s consciences and an opportunity to eradicate a social evil by methods which will increase economic prosperity”.[14]

Mixed committees that included representatives of the League of Nations, the International Labour Office and the International Institute of Agriculture gave nutrition policies priority in the 1930s. They presented recommendations to the governments encouraging further scientific research with a view to ascertaining the optimum standards for each individual country. They emphasised the importance of updating information in the teaching of medical students, practitioners, officers and district nurses, and of following a vigorous policy of education for the general public. The experts required support not only for scientific research but also in promoting the application of modern nutritional science in social practices. This was to be for the benefit of the different age and occupational groups of the population, as well as for facilitating international cooperation in that field. Fighting malnutrition had to become an international commitment led by the United Nations.[15]

  • [1] Trentmann, Just, 2006, Introduction, pp. 1-12.
  • [2] Final report, 1937, pp. 160-163.
  • [3] Ibidem, p. 173.
  • [4] “Report on the Physiological Bases”, 1936, p. 66.
  • [5] Ibidem, p. 95.
  • [6] Ibidem, 1936, pp. 97-98.
  • [7] Nutrition in various countries, 1936, p. 269.
  • [8] Ibidem, pp. 267-270.
  • [9] Final report, 1937.
  • [10] The Problem of Nutrition, 1936, p. 84.
  • [11] Ibidem, p. 83.
  • [12] Final report, 1937, p. 45.
  • [13] Ibidem, p. 50.
  • [14] Ibidem, p. 53.
  • [15] Ibidem, pp. 54-56.
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