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

Surveys on the State of Food and Agriculture in Europe (1948-1949)

Three years after the termination of hostilities and the founding of the FAO, a survey of world conditions and prospects concerning the state of food and agriculture was published.16 In 1948 experts and politicians became aware that the short-term crisis announced for 194547 had been underestimated. Full employment was found almost everywhere in the recovering countries of Europe and the Far East, in the developing countries of Latin America and in countries undergoing expansion, such as the United States and Canada. Although large amounts of money were generated, the output of consumption was inadequate to match the level of consumer purchasing power.

The experiences of the war have brought food to occupy a central position in government policy in many countries and it may ultimately take such a position in all countries. Furthermore, the persistent scarcity of supplies and the emergency of special problems, which will presently be discussed, impelled governments at the last session of the FAO Conference to recognize the need for periodic discussion of the state of food and agriculture.17 [1]

In the report on the state of food and agriculture published in 1948, a chapter was devoted to Europe as one of the higher-income, densely populated regions, emerging from World War II with important losses that, according to the experts, had been underestimated:

Because industrial production, apart from Germany, is back to the pre-war level, because bridges have been rebuilt and the railways are operating again, there is a misleading impression that Europe is already far along the road to recovery. On closer examination the situation is more serious. Some of the capital losses can never be replaced: for example, most of the overseas investments, which were liquidated. Some of the industry cannot be rebuilt, but must be replaced by new industries, which have a better chance of finding new export markets. And behind this lies the immense

backlog of investment needs in houses, schools, hospitals, and other public 18


Europe faced two main agricultural problems associated with production on the one hand and distribution of the products on the other. European countries aimed to recover and exceed pre-war levels, especially in the production of milk, cereals and potatoes. Eastern European countries planned for a substantial expansion in food production. Most European countries achieved a comparatively high standard of living through intense specialisation and the exchange of large amounts of manufactured products for raw materials and food. But food was still scarce and expensive because of an increased retention for consumption in food-exporting countries. This situation gave rise to the problem of international trade. Indeed, the European reality was plural and variable, with contrasts between highly industrialised countries mainly in the Northwest and predominantly agricultural countries in the South. For example, the population density ranged from 291 inhabitants per square kilometre in the Netherlands to as low as 42 inhabitants per square kilometre in Albania, and income levels varied greatly from over $500 per caput in the United Kingdom to just over $50 in Greece and Yugoslavia.

Prices of farm products had risen sharply in almost all European countries during and since the war and governments intervened to fix them. In those countries where price controls were maintained, the differences largely reflected the increased costs of livestock production arising from the scarcity of protein feed. At this juncture, production prospects for 1948-49 were favourable throughout Europe:

From preliminary returns now available, it would appear that the production of bread grains in Europe this year will exceed 1947 production by about 15

million tons. About 75 per cent of this increase affects importing countries. Noteworthy examples of better prospects are France and Italy. The new crop in France is estimated to be over twice as large as in 1947. These results are due to exceptional weather, however, and somewhat exaggerate the degree of recovery really attained by this date.19

Notwithstanding the social crisis derived from the war, in Western Europe in 1948 there were some 11 million more people than before the war on the reduced land area resulting from the change in the frontiers with Germany. In Eastern Europe, the production of foodstuffs was extremely slow and many countries in the area were anxious to import goods from outside Europe in order to maintain food consumption at least at a minimum level. Average levels of imports from 1946 to 1948 compared with pre-war levels were as follows:20

  • - Imports over 100 per cent of pre-war levels were registered in Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania.
  • - Imports between 80 to 100 per cent of pre-war levels for Finland, France, Yugoslavia and Greece.
  • - Imports between 60 to 80 per cent of pre-war levels in Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
  • - Imports under 50 per cent of pre-war levels in Denmark, Netherlands, Ireland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria.

In Western Europe, during the period 1946 to 1948, the imports of grain, sugar and fats were lower than pre-war imports and those of meat, eggs, and dairy products were higher. One must take into consideration that imports of grain, sugar, and fats were constricted by physical limitations and were subject to the allocation procedures of the International Emergency Food Committee. Conversely, the increased imports of animal products represented a partial compensation for the great fall in exports within Western Europe. Only a few countries had surpluses, such as Denmark and Ireland, with the levels not much more than half of what they were before the war. The level in the Netherlands was much lower. During the post-war years a substantial shift occurred in Western Europe’s sources of food; before the war a quarter of food imports came from other European countries, while in 1948 this European trade had almost disappeared.

As regards consumption, in 1948 the consumption of bread, potatoes and milk in Western Europe had declined significantly, showing great differences between several regions and countries. In most countries the

percentage of calories obtained from cereals and potatoes remained very high, with an intake of animal protein that was abnormally low compared with the pre-war period, particularly in Austria, Hungary, Finland, Yugoslavia, Spain and Germany.

There was, however, a steady improvement in the state of health of the European population since 1947. In most countries, the average heights and weights of children were found to surpass the levels of the previous post-war years, although many could not attain pre-war levels. School-age children were usually found to have improved more than adolescents. While in the Netherlands the average heights and weights of school children were back to pre-war levels, the evidence showed that in the United Kingdom adolescents were on average lighter in 1947 than they were in 1945. In Finland, Greece and Germany, adolescents appeared to be the most underweight and under height.22 A positive indicator was the declining tendency of infant mortality rates, as the following table shows:

Infant Mortality Rates in Selected European Countries (per 1000 births)










































United Kingdom



Source: The State of Food and Agriculture - 1948

Tuberculosis was mentioned as a major problem in some countries, and deficiency diseases such as pellagra affected Romania, although the rate of undernourishment was considered to be lower than in previous years. In 1948 rationing of basic foods was still in force in most European countries:

Some countries make allocations according to physiological needs, as in the United Kingdom; others use rationing as a form of wage supplements, as in Poland, or to provide incentive for work of certain types, as in Germany. Most countries, however, make provision to some extent for the vulnerable groups in the population, and some have steeply differentiated allowances, especially of milk, as in Germany and Finland. While some countries, like Italy, are completely or partially de-rationing certain foods, others are finding it necessary to impose more stringent controls. Greece plans to include a greater number of foods in its ration scheme and Czechoslovakia has had to ratio potatoes, vegetables and cheese and to cut rations of other foods drastically.23

Community feeding was expanding in Europe. Many countries had previous experience from the economic crisis of the 1930s and older schemes based on public canteens chiefly devoted to children, pregnant and nursing women and workers were again implemented. The programme International Children’s Emergency Fund was established by the United Nations and operated in 12 European countries, mostly in Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. The neediest children received a meal consisting of protective foods provided by UNICEF, notably dried skimmed milk, matched by local foods of equal caloric value provided by the government of the country. In 1948 the scheme helped four million children, who received basic meals such as breakfast. This was successfully implemented in Greece and consisted of a milk drink and a slice of milk raisin bread.

The number of school children receiving school meals in the United Kingdom had grown spectacularly, from four per cent of the total in prewar time to 52 per cent in 1948. In addition, 88 per cent of school-age children received free school milk as well. After the war, Finland introduced a decree making it compulsory for schools to supply meals. In Norway, the so-called Oslo breakfast was served to 91 per cent of school children for free and consisted of a simple nutritious meal. At the end of the 1940s half the children in Germany enjoyed a ration-free school meal as well. All these different school feeding programmes were widespread among all European countries. The initiative was shown to have a beneficial effect on the health and growth of children in European countries, mitigating the critical post-war food situation.

Food for workers, on the other hand, was implemented in many cases as an emergency measure during the war, and in the years that followed, the scheme was maintained to minimise the negative effects of acute shortages on the health of the population and worker strength and productivity. The initiatives spread throughout Europe, becoming a permanent institution in many countries. Much experience had been accumulated since the first initiatives that were put in place during the crisis that affected the 1930s.

Due to the critical situation of the post-war years, there was widespread interest in nutrition education in Europe, an approach requiring staff, funds and a cooperative attitude among all the groups involved. A number of countries, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, established permanent organisations for nutrition education; others, like Greece, started work in the same direction. Most of the National Schools of Public Health, as in the case of Spain, developed specific programmes to spread nutritional information, preparing propaganda and popularisation programmes in the rural districts and specific programmes for mothers on dietary needs, cooking and the feeding of children. Some experts working in national institutes became specialised in nutritional popularisation, writing books for the public-at-large, with lectures, films, leaflets and audiovisual materials.[2] If Carrasco Cadenas is a typical example in Spain of this new figure of doctor-nutritionist devoting intense activity in educating the population, many academics and rural doctors developed similar initiatives. This was the case of Isadore Julius Wolf, a family doctor and professor at the Kansas School of Medicine, and author of a well-known book that popularised dietetics.[3] Teaching nutrition to medical students and public health specialists was another initiative, as well as the creation of university degrees in this field. We shall take a more in-depth look at these programmes in the years that followed in a later chapter.

All European countries designed policies and programmes during the post-war years, not only to restore the pre-war level of food production, but also to increase agricultural efficiency. In Eastern and Mediterranean

Europe, emphasis was placed upon increasing crop yields, diversification of production and improvement in the quality of livestock, notably dairy cattle, whose milk yields were less than half of that in the West. In Western Europe the emphasis was placed mostly on better use of grassland, better livestock and increased cultivation of fruit, vegetables and other specialty crops.[4] Western European farming depended heavily upon the use of large supplies of raw materials, such as fertilisers and feed, most of which were normally imported from abroad. Future programmes envisaged a substantial increase in production and in the use of tractors and other forms of mechanised agriculture. Indeed, the outstanding tendency in Eastern European programmes at the end of the 1940s was to increase industrialisation and efficiently organise the absorption of agricultural populations into other occupations. This trend indirectly aided agriculture by leaving remaining farm families with more farmland; hitherto, their holdings had been, on average, notably smaller and less economically efficient than those of Western Europe.

Agricultural production faced a great challenge: it needed to be intensified, adapted to the requirements of growing urban populations and to the export markets. However, the extension and output of cereals in 1950-51 was expected to be still below pre-war figures. The aim was to increase potato yields, with the exception of Poland and Czechoslovakia, where the pre-war production was considered to be excessive. The programme aimed for more sugar beets, oilseeds and industrial crops such as flax, hemp, cotton and tobacco. While the intention was to increase yields far beyond pre-war averages, this was not expected to happen before 1951.[5] The number of horses and other draft animals had not recovered in Eastern Europe, even though programmes that favoured the introduction of tractors had not been fully implemented. The number of cows had not fully recovered either, although the number of pigs and poultry was expected to be well above pre-war figures. Meat production had largely recovered, especially pork. More fish was also available, but milk and dairy products were significantly below pre-war standards. In the whole of Europe the grain- producing area and the output in 1950-51 was expected to be slightly lower than pre-war figures. In contrast, more potatoes, sugar, fruit and vegetables were expected. In France and the United Kingdom, yields were expected to be higher than pre-war levels, and in other countries more ambitious plans for agricultural growth and efficiency in production were established.

Considered as a whole, these production programmes aimed for an extremely rapid recovery from the condition in which agriculture was left at the end of the war, but it was not expected that livestock production goals could be reached before 1953. In 1948 European governments were collaborating under the auspices of the FAO to solve a number of technical issues in the agricultural and food production programmes. For instance, conferences on soil conservation and infestation control were held in Italy, and others took place at the end of November 1948 in Poland on animal diseases and in the Danube countries on the dissemination of hybrid corn.

In addition to the issues involved in improving food production, others existed concerning international trade, an essential aspect of the problem. Yet this depended to a greater extent on factors outside the control of the national governments, and therefore plans calling for coordination of nations formulated by international organisations could not be precise or possess executive power. It was expected that Eastern European countries would again become part of a food-exporting area, although in 1951 net exports of grain were not expected to exceed one million tons, compared with three million in the pre-war period. Yet the exports of meat, eggs and sugar were expected to be substantially above pre-war levels, particularly in Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. This was a consequence of the intensification of agriculture, with the challenge for these countries being to process primary agricultural products, such as cereals, and redirect them into exports instead of livestock products. In Eastern Europe, the pressure of increasing internal demand as a result of a certain degree of industrial development might have reduced the export surpluses, and trade tended to be mostly focused on the Soviet Union rather than other parts of Europe. The industrialisation programmes implemented in Eastern European countries required high imports of machinery and other production equipment, which could be obtained from Western Europe, this becoming a source of intra-European trade. On the other hand, in Western Europe food imports were expected to be greater than in prewar years, particularly for grains, sugar, meat, cheese and processed milk. But the imports of rice and fats remained below pre-war levels.29

Food production and international trade was a key issue for economic recovery after the war. However, the main point from a health perspective was the recovery of the poor levels of consumption. In both Eastern and Western Europe, the general trends showed that the average caloric supply of the population was expected to return to pre-war levels in 1951, being already somewhat above that level in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and significantly lower in Finland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia.

The diet in most countries should be better balanced than at present, particularly in certain countries with previously unsatisfactory nutritional standards. In Eastern Europe, a significant increase is anticipated in consumption of sugar and fats, which formerly was very low, and consumption of vegetables, fruits, and eggs will probably increased. In most western Europe the wartime increase in potato consumption is likely to disappear and consumption of milk, vegetables, and fruits to rise. However, most governments have milk consumption targets, which cannot be fully realized as early as 1950/51.30

Countries envisaged nutritional surveys on the diet and nutritional status of the population and educational campaigns as the basis for national food-distribution programmes. Similarly, nutritional education was considered to become an essential tool in improving health and living conditions. “Some countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Italy are making a start in collecting data. During the past year Greece and Belgium have set up national nutrition organizations. There is an urgent need for standardization of field methods and agreement on criteria of nutritional status as the present results often convey no clear meaning”.31

Indeed, the future level of food consumption in Europe depended in large measure upon the extent to which these countries could expand their national production of industrial and other goods, as well as on the success in obtaining export markets for a part of their output. “Europe’s pre-war standard of living, although unsatisfactory in many countries, was as high as it was only on the basis of considerable specialization of labour”.32 Even if the development of industries in other continents made it increasingly hard for Europe to find new fields of profitable specialisation, the rapid recovery of industrial production in 1948, coupled with a significant recovery in exports, led experts to believe that Europe might find ways of recapturing and even improving on its former standard of living, in the different conditions of the post-war

Ibidem, p. 115.

  • 31 Ibidem.
  • 32 Ibidem.

period. Technical analysis of the political economy of food and health was abundant during post-war years.

A second survey was published by the FAO expert committee in 1949, devoted to the state of food and agriculture.[6] A specific section discussed the situation in Europe. It seemed evident to the experts that there had been a notable improvement in those European countries in which diet and the nutritional state of the population were already satisfactory before the war. In contrast, for those nations in which food intake had been traditionally low, the situation was notably deficient. From a global perspective, these regions contained most of the world population. Total food supplies were still highly inadequate and inequalities in the distribution had increased. It was therefore extremely important to pay attention not only to the resources available to stimulate agriculture, improve efficiency and establish better channels for food trade, but also to providences that could bring about an improvement of available foodstuffs, considering their nutritional value. The international experts suggested a series of strategies that would globally address improvement in food policies:

  • a) The implementation of food rationing schemes. In certain countries, especially in the United Kingdom, food rationing had allowed for a better use of food provisions in periods of scarcity. However, it should be noted that effective rationing programmes could be hardly implemented within those countries, which mainly depended upon foodstuffs produced locally and also when there existed great differences among social groups. In any case food-rationing schemes provided the national authorities with an instrument that safeguarded official distribution paths and ensured minimum access to food to avoid exclusion.
  • b) Beneficial methods to improve diet. A diet mainly based on extensive production of cereals could lead to deficient nutritional levels. However, foodstuffs enhanced with vitamins and minerals may be rejected by the public. As these beneficial actions were the result of industrial procedures under sanitary control, any resistance to these products on the part of the public could be minimized with the implementation of well designed information and education campaigns.
  • c) A specific instance of the previous point was food enriched with vitamins and minerals, which was thought to provide unquestionable benefits to a healthy diet.
  • d) Education programmes for better nutrition for the entire population and other programmes oriented to specific groups such as farmers, peasants, housewives, mothers, teachers and doctors. Any change in dietary habits and cooking practices was usually the result of a slow and difficult process, which was, on the other hand, highly recommended. Nutritional education tended to stimulate the demand for different dietary products of higher nutritional value, although it could also increase profit from existing provisions.
  • e) Supplementary feeding. Nutritional deficiencies were not a result of foods with relatively poor nutritional value alone, they might also arise from a physiological need for more nutrients under special conditions, such as quick growth, pregnancy or heavy work. Therefore, supplementary feeding programmes became more important for children and adolescents, pregnant and nursing women, as well as for industrial workers.

Nutrition programmes were to be based on solid knowledge about the nutritional state of the population in a country, region or rural area, according to the information contained in food surveys and the knowledge derived from research on the nutritional value of available foodstuffs. It is remarkable that in 1950 the implementation of nutritional programmes was absolutely necessary, not only in those countries in which the population was poor and undernourished but even in other countries with apparently sufficient food provisions; these countries might have been suffering from poor distribution, which may have led to poor nutrition among a significant proportion of the population. It was only through programmes of this type that people in either of these situations were able to prevent nutritional deficiencies and increase health standards.

  • [1] Ibidem, p. 29. The State of Food and Agriculture-1948. A Survey of World Conditions andProspects, Washington, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,[September] 1948.
  • [2] Carrasco Cadenas, E., Ni gordos, ni flacos. Lo que se debe comer, Madrid, Diana,1935; Carrasco Cadenas, E., “Escuela Nacional de Sanidad. Seccion de Higiene de laAlimentacion y de la Nutricion y Tecnica Bromatologica. Su orientacion y programade trabajo al ano y medio de su organizacion”, Revista de Sanidad e Higiene Publica,1933, Vol. 8, pp. 258-260.
  • [3] Wolff, I.J, The Human Fuel, Boston, Chapman & Grimes, 1936. I want to thankKathy Fabiani-Wolf for information about the man, his activities and publications.
  • [4] The State of Food and Agriculture-1948.
  • [5] Ibidem, p. 111.
  • [6] El Estado Mundial de la Agricultura y la Alimentacion. Las condiciones actuales ysus perspectivas, Washington, Organizacion de las Naciones Unidas para laAgricultura y la Alimentacion, [octubre] 1949.
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