A Closer Look into History: The Phylloxera Crisis in France and Long-term Health Impacts

Today’s review paper topic ties in issues related to viticulture, health, history, and finance.  Carried out by a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this post presents a paper looking at possible long-run health impacts of “income shocks” related to wine and the phylloxera pest in late 19th century France. 

How could a sudden drop in income effect long-run health?


Studies have shown that poor environmental conditions in utero have adverse effects on long-term health outcomes, including life expectancy, height, cognitive abilities, and overall productivity.  Many environmental factors can influence the severity of damage regarding the aforementioned health outcomes, including the disease environment, public health infrastructure, food availability, and certain seasonal nutrients.  Studies have also shown that for developing countries, the nutritional state of children is affected by the income of their family.  Therefore, in developing countries, it is speculated that financial crises may have long-term health impacts on children born during that period of stress, though there have not been enough studies to confirm or refute this idea.

The aim of the study presented today was to look deeper into the phylloxera crisis in 19th century France, and examine whether or not the income shocks associated with this sudden drop in grape and wine production had any long-term effects on the health of those that were born during that period of time.

Phylloxera and 19th Century France


Phylloxera, an insect of the aphid family, attacks the roots of vines, which causes dry leaves, a reduced yield of fruit, and ultimately the death of the plant.  Native to North America, the insect is thought to have arrived in France in the early 1860s, either in the wood used for packaging materials from the US to France, or in a shipment of American vines.  The pest had two points of establishment, one on the southern coast of France near the mouth of the Rhône, and the other on the west coast in the Bordeaux region.  The insect spread relatively quickly, moving northward up the Rhône and outward along the coast, as well as southeast along the Dordogne and Garonne rivers and north to the Loire valley, all by 1878.  By 1885, the phylloxera pest had reached Paris.


When the phylloxera first arrived, no one knew exactly what the cause of the plight was, since it was a completely new occurrence for them.  As it spread, and after nearly 40% of the vineyards in France were destroyed, it was apparent that it was causing a huge decrease in production, and a commission to investigate was formed.  After discovering the cause of the dying vines was the phylloxera pest that destroyed the root structure, a solution was found in the 1880s, which was to graft the phylloxera-resistant American vine root stock onto the European vines.  As a result of this discovery and solution implementation, the European vine recovery was well on its way, with eventually 4/5 of the vineyards in Europe being replaced with the new grafted vines.

Economy of Wine in 19th Century France

Before the phylloxera infestation, 1/6th of French agriculture income came from wine, which was produced mainly in several small highly specialized wine growing regions.  The authors of the study presented today estimated that the loss in agricultural income during the phylloxera crisis was about 16-22% in the wine producing regions of France (which is a major income shock).

Instead of facing major wine shortages in France, government officials relaxed wine import rules, so that the prices of wine did not change to reflect the decrease in grape production during the phylloxera crisis.  For example, in the 1860s (before the phylloxera crisis), 0.2 million hectoliters of wine were imported from places other than France.  After relaxing import rules as a result of the phylloxera crisis, 10 million hectoliters of wine were imported in the 1880s.  After replacing the European vines with the new phylloxera-resistant grafts, the wine importation rules were once again implemented, and wine imports decreased in the 1890s.  This effectively kept the prices of French wine rising as fast as the production was decreasing. 


With a huge decrease in production and no increase in wine prices, the phylloxera crisis was therefore a huge income shock for those producing wine at the time.  Without yearly data on overall agricultural production, it cannot be determined what the overall drop in GDP was during the phylloxera crisis.  However, there is reason to believe there was no switch from wine production to any other agricultural activity (such as wheat production) by wine growers affected by the phylloxera, therefore the decline in wine production led to a overall decline in income for wine producers.  This trend has been confirmed in other studies related to the phylloxera crisis in France.  The total loss of income in the wine-producing regions on France during the phylloxera crisis was between 16-22%.

Methods:  Health Information and Measurement

In the late 19th century, France could be considered a developing country.  The female life expectancy in 1876 was 43 years old, infant mortality was 22%, and the average height of males at the age of 20 was 1.65 meters (5 feet, 5 inches).  Height has been shown to be a relatively good measure of overall health, and it has been shown to be correlated with other adult outcomes.

To acquire health information for those individuals born during the phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century France, the authors of the study went to military data sets for numbers.  Since 1798, men had to report for military service in the year they turned 20 in the region where there father lived.  It is then that health information (including height measurements) was recorded.  Rejections due to health reasons (including being too short) were recorded as well.

Many mathematical models were used to determine the results of this study after controlling for many potential influencing factors, and will not be presented in this summary post; however I am happy to present that information to you, should you be interested.  Simply comment below with questions.


Effect of Phylloxera-induced Income Shocks on Height

  •       At the age of 20, those born in wine-producing regions that lost all of its production due to phylloxera would be 3.2 mm shorter than those born in other regions.
  •       Those born in wine-producing regions that lost 80% of its production due to phylloxera would be 1.9 mm shorter than those born in other regions.
  •       A drop of 10% in a wine-producing regions’ income would result in a decrease of 1.06-1.9mm in height.
  •       In wine-producing regions, 1 more hectare of vineyard per capita increases the probability that a 20 year old male born in years where production was at least 20% lower due to the phylloxera crisis is shorter by 1.85% and reduces his height by 7mm.
  •       A child born into a wine-producing family during the phylloxera crisis was 0.5 to 0.9 cm shorter by the age of 20 than he/she would be otherwise.

o   Considering than overall heights in France during that time grew only by 2cm, that effect is a large one.

  •       The probability of being rejected for military service due to short height was 1.5% higher for each additional hectare of wine per capita in a wine-producing region.
  •       There were no long-term height effects on young children 1-2 years old), toddlers (2-5 years old) or teenagers who were born before the phylloxera crisis hit.

Effect of Phylloxera-induced Income Shocks on Other Health Outcomes

·         There was no effect on mortality or life expectancy as a result of phylloxera-induced income shocks in late 19th century France.

·         The number of men rejected for military service for health reasons is actually smaller for those effected by phylloxera (though it’s uncertain what exactly the health reasons were, and there is a potential for sampling bias in this study which may alter the results slightly).

·         Overall, there is no evidence of a negative long-term impact of the phylloxera crisis on any health condition, other than height.

What does this all mean?

Since the only health outcome apparently affected by the phylloxera crisis in 19th century France was height, the authors speculated that it was most likely due to nutritional deficits during childhood, and not necessarily due to stress in utero.  Overall health status may have been protected by other factors, such as decent public health infrastructure, which alleviated any potential health risk often associated with income shocks.

Since those in wine-producing regions were often wealthier with a high social status compared to those living in other regions, it is possible that the loss in income was not significant enough to cause much stress in utero, which would have had negative effects on long-term health outcomes.  Perhaps those in wine-producing regions were more able to recover from a loss in income than a poorer individual working in other industries in France at that time.

In summary, it appears that stress in utero has negative effects on health outcomes in adulthood, however, the income shocks due to the vine-damaging phylloxera crisis was not enough to illicit such a response.  Perhaps those families affected were wealthy enough to withstand the blow without harsh consequences, or perhaps all of the wine being consumed kept everyone in a happy, stress-free state!

Please feel free to comment below!  I’d love to hear from you!

Full citation for the article discussed today:

Banerjee, A., Duflo, E., Postel-Vinay, G., and Watts, T. 2010. Long-run health impacts of income shocks: wine and the phylloxera in nineteenth-century France. The Review of Economics and Statistics 92(4): 714-728.

I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!