Food, Hunger and Conflict

Josep L. Barona

The great international crisis that hit Europe during the first decades of the 20th century gave political, economic and social priority to food availability. As a result of the crisis caused by the Great War, the end of colonial empires, international conflicts and the 1929 stock market crash, food production and consumption increasingly became a State responsibility and a concern for public health. Experimental science influenced nutritional knowledge, and inspired agricultural and health policies, with impact on the economy and cultural habits. International organizations, in collaboration with state administration and philanthropic associations, pushed experimental research and launched field studies on the diet, trying to adjust food production, trade demands and nutritional health.

Scientific research established levels of malnutrition and classified nutritional deficiencies, defining parameters for a balanced diet. This was the background for rationing policies in time of shortages and the guarantee of minimum diet, political expression of social justice. In many European countries, the nutritional situation improved as a consequence of rationing. Indeed, research on physiology of nutrition received strong stimulus due to social interest in evaluating the impact of the international crisis on health. Food consumption standards were too low among the European population, compared with scientific standards of calorie intake and increase levels of consumption and changing dietary habits was essential. School canteens, collective meals for industrial workers, breastfeeding mothers and poor people constituted a field where social policies had an international dimension.

Pregnant and nursing women, children, peasants, farmers, industrial workers and rural populations became the main target of an internationally connected policy including laboratory research, clinical screening and dietary standards for low incomes and social groups at risk. The League of Nations played a prominent role in the big boost to the definition of nutrition as a political problem.

The political economy of scientific knowledge nutrition during the first half of the 20th century became a powerful instrument for international stabilization.