Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Price Elasticities, Entitlements, Chronic Malnutrition, and Mortality Rates

Robert W. Fogel

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 1
Issued in May 1989
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

The six principal findings of this paper are as follows: (1) crisis mortality accounted for less than 5 percent of total mortality in England prior to 1800 and the elimination of crisis mortality accounted for just 15 percent of the decline in total mortality between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (2) The use of variations in wheat prices to measure variations in the food supply has led to gross overestimates of the variability of the food supply. (3) The famines that plagued England between 1500 and 1800 were manmade, the consequence of failures in the system of food distribution related to an extremely inelastic demand for food inventories, rather than to natural calamities or inadequate technology. (4) It was not only within the power of government to eliminate famines but in fact the food distribution policies of James I and Charles I succeeded in reducing the variability of annual wheat prices by over 70 percent. (5) A change in the government policy could not have eliminated chronic malnutrition. Elimination of chronic malnutrition required technological changes that permitted the per capita consumption of food to increase by about 50 percent. (6) Improvements in average nutritional status appear to explain nearly all of the decline in mortality rates in England, France, and Sweden between 1775-1875 but only about half of the mortality decline since 1875.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0001

Published: (Published as "Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Chronic Malnutrition, and Mortality Rates") Nutrition and Poverty, Osmani, S.R., ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 243-286.

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