A multitude of dietary gospels are preached in the media, but only a small portion of the population are pure practitioners of any one of them. To hear all the talk of toxins and poisons that standard modern diets supposedly foist on us, one would think that those of us who aren't following the latest fad diets are on a toboggan ride toward debilitation and death. Strange as it may seem to the true believers, though, the evidence indicates the general public is moving in the opposite direction, toward longer life and better health.
Admittedly, our longer life expectancy is only partly due to nutrition. There are so many other factors clean water, antibiotics, immunization, etc. Living longer is not by itself sufficient evidence for improved nutrition. Declining infant mortality likewise has many co-factors, but nevertheless, given the importance of the nutritional health of the mother and birth weight of the infant, it is clear that nutrition has played an important part in bringing down infant mortality rates (Fogel 1995). The adequately fed, healthy mother provides improved nutrition to the fetus and thereby contributes to the full development of the organs of the child, providing the basis for a longer and healthier life. Beginning "in utero or infancy," inadequate nutrition can lead to a vast array of deleterious conditions that make the offspring more vulnerable to disease and death. Nutritional deficiency makes the organism more susceptible to contagious diseases, to chronic illness later in life, and to shorter life expectancy.
Nutrition in utero, even among children of normal birth weight, may also affect IQ, as at least one study shows that IQ (at age seven) is positively associated with birth weight (Matte et al. 2001). The authors of this report refer to other studies and raise the possibility that: "Although the reported effects of variation within normal birth weight on IQ are modest and of no clinical importance for individual children, they could be important at a population level because of the large proportion of children born of normal weight. In addition, these effects could shed light on links between fetal growth and brain development" (Matte et al. 2001).
Though the mechanism for it is not fully understood, malnutrition and trauma in utero or early childhood "are transformed into organ dysfunction [in later life]...What is agreed on is that the basic structure of most organs is laid down early, and it is reasonable to infer that poorly developed organs may break down earlier than well developed ones" (Fogel 2000a, 77). Fogel argues that "retarded development in utero or infancy as a result of malnutrition" has additional adverse consequences that become manifest in midlife or later and contribute to the "early onset of degenerative disease of old age" (Fogel 2000a, 78).
Getting Better All the Time
Fogel and Costa refer to the improvement in nutrition during recent human history as technophysio evolution. "The theory of technophysio evolution rests on the proposition that during the last 300 years, particularly during the last century, humans have gained an unprecedented degree of control over their environment" (Fogel and Costa 1997, 49). Fogel and Costa further argue that this control sets humans not only "apart from all other species, but also from all previous generations of homo sapiens." They add: "This new degree of control has enabled homo sapiens to increase its average body size by over 50%, to increase its average longevity by more than 100%, and to improve greatly the robustness and capacity of vital organs" (Fogel and Costa 1997, 49).
It may be a bit extreme to contrast these positive long-term results to conditions just a few centuries ago in Europe, when parents were often unable to provide even the barest minimum of food for their young children. But even Europe in relatively recent centuries provides stark reminders that food is crucial. Imagine placing an innocent young child out to die so that there will be enough food to feed the other members of the family. According to Leblanc: "In the 1700s and 1800s, Europeans developed institutions to give this practice the appearance of propriety. Foundling hospitals were established...Allegedly orphanages, these institutions spelled death for the majority of infants that crossed their thresholds. Most scholars believe that about 90% of all babies soon died" (Leblanc 2003).
Getting Taller As Well
We are not only living longer and healthier but we are also richer and taller (Steckel 1995 and Fogel 1989 and 1992). This is true in developed and developing countries (see, for example, Morgan 2000). There is now a growing body of evidence that height and health are strongly correlated with each other, as reflected in changes in the average height of a population over time.
Some of the changes in height over the last centuries have been truly spectacular. "Norwegian recruits of the 1760s were as short as bushmen" of the Kalahari are today (5ft, 2 in), while in 1983, Norwegian recruits averaged 5 ft, 10 1/2 inches tall (Floud et al. 1990). Similarly, in four generations, the male population of Holland has added eight inches, going from 64 to 72 inches tall. Height is more than just being tall. Fogel shows how this increase in height correlates inversely with the risk of dying (Fogel 2000a 146-148).
"Variations in height and weight appear to be associated with variations in the chemical composition of the tissues that make up the vital organs, in the quality of electrical transmissions across the membranes, and in the functioning of the endocrine system and other vital systems" (Fogel 2000b, 296).
To Fogel, nutritional status would appear to be a "critical link connecting improvements in technology to improvements in human physiology" (Fogel 2000b, 296). Technology and the food supply that it has produced are not killing us; quite the contrary, they have been a transforming factor in our lives, making us live longer and healthier. Recognizing that transformation makes it even more imperative that we strongly support the research, development, and utilization of food production technology (including transgenic food crops) and vigorously resist the efforts of anti-modernists. They are blind to the benefits of past technological change and would prevent those most in need from being full partners in technological progress.
Thomas R. DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and the author of the recent book The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology (Iowa State Press: A Blackwell Publishing Company) and a forthcoming book, Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate (Iowa State Press: A Blackwell Publishing Company), both of which formed the basis of much of the material in this paper.
Floud, Roderick; Kenneth Wachter, and Annabel Gregory. 1990. Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 17501980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fogel, Robert W. 1989. Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Price Elasticities, Entitlements, Chronic Malnutrition, and Mortality Rates. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Fogel, Robert W. 1992. Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Chronic Malnutrition and Mortality Rates. In Nutrition and Poverty edited by Siddiqur Rahman Osmani, pp. 243286. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Fogel, Robert W. 1995. The Contribution of Improved Nutrition to the Decline in Mortality Rates in Europe and America. In The State of Humanity edited by Julian L. Simon, pp. 6171. Oxford, Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell in association with the Cato Institute.
Fogel, Robert W. 2000a. The Fourth Great Awakening & The Future of Egalitarianism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Fogel, Robert W. 2000b. The Extension of Life in Developed Countries and Its Implications for Social Policy in Twenty-first Century, Population And Development Review (Supplement), 26:291-317.
Fogel, Robert W. and Dora L. Costa. 1997. A Theory of Technophysio Evolution, With Some Implications for Forecasting Population, Health Care Costs, and Pension Costs. Demography 34(1):49-66, February.
Leblanc, Steven A. with Katherine E. Register. 2003. Constant Battles. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Matte, Thomas D.; Michaeline Bresnahan; Melissa D Begg and Ezra Susser. 2001. Influence of Variation in Birth Weight Within Normal Range and Within Sibships on IQ at Age 7 Years: Cohort Study, BMJ (British Medical Journal) 323(7308):310314, 11 August.
Steckel, Richard H. 1995. Stature and Standard of Living, Journal of Economic Literature 33:1903-1940.