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


Defining Risks

Peasants, the Unemployed and other Risk Groups: the Effects of War and Depression

The critical situation of the food supply and the poor nutritional condition of Europe’s population dated back to the Great War years. It became a chronic problem in the 1920s, getting worse during the 1930s economic crisis and reaching dramatic levels at certain moments and in certain regions during World War II and the post-war period. Specific regions suffered from acute critical problems of starvation and malnutrition and the general picture was further aggravated during the war and post-war years in the 1940s and early 1950s. The high cost of food in Europe cast a very dark shadow and, according to the specialists, chronic hunger threatened Europe’s health after the Great War.[1]

In a paper published in 1922, the Catalan physiologist August pi i Sunyer compared the prices of basic foodstuffs in Berlin, Barcelona and other European cities with the level of income and concluded that European people were much poorer in 1922 than in 1914. Making a comparison between the average income and market food prices, pi i Sunyer determined the threshold of poverty, identifying it in those sectors of the European population that had to spend 70% of their income on food. He estimated that in Barcelona in 1922 “reducing the food expenditure under 1.75 pesetas per person per day is certainly the way towards insufficient nutrition...”[2] In the early 1920s the victims of poor nutrition were counted by the millions in Russia, China, Germany, Austria, the Balkan countries and Poland, and in Spain certain rural districts like Las Hurdes showed the ravages of poverty on health and physical development in many population groups, especially those living in the countryside in a situation of semi-exclusion.[3] The social and medical perception that a deep crisis resulted from a poor diet alarmed politicians and put European states into action to assess the situation and define risks.

Laboratory and clinical research in the 1930s made it clear that the health of a nation was closely bound up with the state of nutrition of its population. It seemed therefore important to discover what kind of food the unemployed millions, with an income reduced to a very low level, were able to buy as a consequence of the international crisis. While very few studies of the dietaries actually used by unemployed men and their families had been made in previous years, sufficient data existed to enable certain inferences about nutrition in lower income groups.[4] Specialists in the new experimental physiology of nutrition adapted calorie requirements to the new critical situation.

A sedentary worker was supposed to need from 2,200 to 2,400 calories a day. This was estimated by subtracting from the 3,100 calories needed by an average worker the 800 calories demanded by an average day’s work. Therefore, during the period of unemployment, calorie needs could be reduced by 27% for workers and around 8% for the entire family. Based on the food expenditure and income figures of a number of unemployed families collected by the German Statistisches Reichsamt, evidence of undernourishment was found for 1927, a year of relative prosperity, but the financial position of the unemployed steadily worsened ever since. A 19% fall in the cost of living and a 25% drop in food prices had taken place between 1927 and 1932, the situation being described as a hidden famine.[5] An estimate of the state of nutrition among the unemployed in Germany, which was based entirely on official figures relating to allowances and market prices, slightly overaccentuated the seriousness of the situation, since only 45% of the available income went to food. If unemployed families spent this proportion of their income on food, the number of calories purchasable would be about 532 to 1,140 per day for children and 840 to 1,800 for adults. Some detailed dietaries regarding unemployed families in Germany provided evidence of the difficult situation: in three meals out of four, very little other than coffee and bread with margarine or jam was eaten. The midday meal usually included a greater variety of foodstuffs: soup, potatoes, green vegetables and sometimes meat.[6]

In Britain, technical reports for 1932 showed that the total income of the unemployed just about covered the necessary food expenditure, but the safety margin was very small. At the time, the situation in Germany was comparatively worse. Food availability was a central factor from the perspective of both domestic and foreign affairs. According to the British Ministry of Health, “the diet in the households of the unemployed men comprised little beyond white bread, butter or margarine, potatoes, sugar, jam, tea and bacon in limited quantity: although meat was seldom eaten, fresh milk was not seen and the usual milk was skimmed condensed. Fresh vegetables other than potatoes were seldom eaten”.[7]

Such disproportion between the income of the unemployed and their necessary food expenditure existed in many other European countries. The general awareness of a loss of quality in the nutrition of European citizens was inevitably raised, the resulting tendency being a growing consumption of cheaper vegetable foods at the expense of milk, meat, eggs and butter. This tendency had to be counteracted by mass production in order to meet an urgent demand for very cheap animal foods.

According to international expert surveys, in the Far East, Tropical Countries and Colonial territories dietary standards were not essentially different from those of Western countries. Since a scientific approach was based on the idea that physiological standards were universally applicable, dietary habits were basic for assessing the nutritional state of the populations. Research work on nutrition in the Far East prompted the study of the nutritive value of local foodstuffs, the diet of the different population groups, their state of nutrition and the incidence of diseases caused by dietary deficiencies. In order to carry out diet surveys for different population groups, data had to be calculated not only in terms of nutrients and food factors (calories, nutritional principles, vitamins, minerals, etc) but also in terms of real foodstuffs consumed: in terms of diet. In any case, such investigations were expected to come up with a definition of the problem and therefore encourage the consumption of certain products: under-milled rice, red palm oil and others. As a complementary option, feeding experiments on human groups were suggested by nutritionists.

The League of Nations’ Technical Commission on nutrition underlined the importance of relying on natural local products, but they also agreed that certain population groups could benefit from the distribution of pure and concentrated vitamins, provided these could be obtained cheaply in large quantities. Yeast, a product rich in nitrogenous elements and B group vitamins, was considered to be of particular value in correcting deficiencies in the diets of tropical and Eastern populations. Something similar was said about mineral elements, which could be supplied cheaply to schoolchildren and groups suffering from a deficiency of these elements. One of the most important defects of the so-called poor rice-eater’s diet - a problem identified in some Asian regions - was precisely calcium shortage.

Raising education standards and giving specific instruction on the principles of nutrition was considered necessary for all social classes as an essential instrument to improve dietary habits in each country. In 1938 circumstances were very critical in Europe. For two years Spain suffered the shortages caused by the civil war, and a severe restriction of foodstuffs aggravated the nutrition problem in many other European countries to the extent that emergency measures by governments against famine as a real threat were needed. National institutes of food had been created in most countries to coordinate food policy, to address trade and improve availability. Under those circumstances, the League of Nations’ Technical Commission on Nutrition took on the task of implementing a dietary standard aimed at ensuring an optimum degree of nutrition. On the other hand, the approach to famine relief was largely dependent on local circumstances. In this regard, important factors had to be taken into account, such as the relation between available funding and the numbers to be fed, food transport and storage, fuel supply, etc. As a consequence, several programmes to prevent famine were proposed by the Technical Commission, according to the special peculiarities of the countries. The evolution of the work done by the Technical Commission and its field of implementation took a shift at the end of the 1930s, from a scenario in which optimum diet was the aim - in a wide project involving agriculture, health, experimental research and politics - to quite a different one threatened by malnutrition and famine.

  • [1] Pi i Sunyer, A., El hambre de los pueblos, Conferencia dada en la Academia deMedicina en 29 de enero de 1922, Barcelona, Asociacion instructiva de obreros yempleados municipales, 1922.
  • [2] Ibidem, p. 23.
  • [3] Viaje a las Hurdes. El manuscrito inedito de Gregorio Maranon y las fotograftas delavisita de Alfonso XIII, Madrid, El Pais-Aguilar, 1993.
  • [4] “The Economic Depression and Public Health, Memorandum prepared by the HealthSection. III. The Nutrition of the Unemployed”, League of Nations Quarterly Bulletinof the Health Organisation, Vol. 1, 1932, pp. 443-457.
  • [5] Ibidem, 1932, p. 448.
  • [6] Report by Lehmann in 1931, included in “The Economic Depression and PublicHealth”, 1932, p. 452.
  • [7] Ibidem.
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