Between 1900 and 1939, the French empire devoted increasing attention
to the problems of hunger and famine in the colonies. Influenced by discoveries
associated with the emerging science of nutrition and under pressure from
international organizations such as the League of Nations, French colonial administrations
accepted food security as their most basic responsibility to their territories
overseas. French scientists and administrators applied nutritional insights first
to individuals in the fight against deficiency disease, then to “races” in an attempt
to increase labor productivity, and finally to colonial populations as a whole. But
as increasingly sophisticated notions of nutrition and public health influenced
colonial administration, it became clear that the lofty promises of nutrition science
were empty in a context in which subjects struggled to achieve minimum subsistence.
The inability of the French empire to fulfill its responsibilities undermined
the ideological justification for colonialism.