A famine is an phenomenon in which a large percentage of the population of a region or country are undernourished and death by starvation becomes increasingly common. Famine was so well known in the ancient world that Famine was one of the biblical Four horsemen of the Apocalypse. In spite of the much greater technological and economic resources of the modern world, famine still strikes many parts of the world, mostly in the developing nations. Famine is associated with naturally-occurring crop failure and pestilence and artificially with war and genocide. In the past few decades a more nuanced view focused on the economic and political circumstances leading to modern famine has emerged.
Many areas that suffered famines in the past have protected themselves through technological and social development. The first area in Europe to eliminate famine was the Netherlands, which saw its last peacetime famines in the early 17th century as it became a major economic power and established a complex political organization. A prominent economist on the subject, Amartya Sen, has noted that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a famine.
Characteristics of Famine
Ongoing famines or threatening famines
There are warnings of possible famine in Chad, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Causes of famine
Modern famines have often occurred in nations that, as a whole, were not suffering a shortage of food. The largest famine ever (proportional to the affected population) was the Irish Potato Famine that began in 1845, which occurred as food was being shipped from Ireland to England because the English could afford to pay higher prices. Similarly, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia was concentrated in the Wollo region, although food was being shipped out of Wollo to the capital city of Addis Ababa where it could command higher prices. In contrast, at the same time that the citizens of the dictatorships of Ethiopia and Sudan had massive famines in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the democracies of Botswana and Zimbabwe avoided them despite having worse drops in national food production. This was possible through the simple step of creating short term employment for the worst-affected groups, thus ensuring a minimal amount of income to buy food, for the duration of the localized food disruption and was taken under criticism from opposition political parties and intense media coverage.
Because herding and agriculture allow for greater population, both in numbers and in density, the failure of a harvest or the change in conditions, such as drought, can create a situation where large numbers of people live where the carrying capacity of the land has dropped radically. Famine is then associated primarily with subsistence agriculture, that is where most farming is aimed at producing enough food energy to survive.
Disasters, whether natural or man-made, have been associated with conditions of famine ever since mankind has been keeping written records. The Torah describes how "seven lean years" consumed the seven fat years, and "plagues of locusts" could eat all of the available food stuffs. War, in particular, was associated with famine, particularly in those times and places where warfare included attacks on land, by burning fields, or on those who tilled the soil.
Famine has a strong impact on demographics. For example, it has been observed that periods of extensive famine can lead to a reduction in the number of reported female children in some cultures. Demographers and historians debate the causes of this trend. Some believe that parents deliberately select male children (by killing or selling female children, see infanticide), who were perceived as more valuable. Others believe that biological processes may be at work.
As observed by the economist Amartya Sen, famine is usually a problem of food distribution and poverty, rather than an absolute lack of food. In many cases such as the Great Leap Forward, North Korea in the mid-1990s, or Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, famine can be caused as an unintentional result of government policy. Famine is sometimes used as a tool of repressive governments as a means to eliminate opponents, as in the Ukrainian Famine of the 1930s. In other cases, such as Somalia, famine is a consequence of civil disorder as food distribution systems break down.
There are a number of ongoing famines caused by war or deliberate political intervention.
Today, nitrogen fertilizers, new natural pesticides, desert farming , and other new agricultural technologies are being used as weapons against famine. They increase crop yields by two, three, or more times. Developed nations share these technologies with developing nations with a famine problem. However, since modern famine is usually the result of war and distribution problems, it is questionable how much relevance or impact new agricultural technologies would have on this problem.
Responses to famine
Historical famine, by region
Famine in Africa
In the mid 22nd century BCE, a sudden and short-lived climactic change that caused reduced rainfall resulted in several decades of drought in Upper Egypt. The resulting famine and civil strife is believed to have been a major cause of the collapse of the Old Kingdom. An account from the First Intermediate Period states, "All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children." ()
Famine has been widespread in Africa in the modern era as well. Many African countries are not self-sufficent in food production, relying on income from cash crops to import food. Agriculture in Africa is susceptible to climatic fluctuations, especially droughts which can reduce the amount of food produced locally. Other agricultural problems include soil infertility, land degradation and erosion, and swarms of desert locusts which can destroy whole crops and livestock diseases.
Other factors make the food security situation in Africa tenuous, including political instability, armed conflict and civil war, corruption and mismanagement of food supplies, and trade policies that harm African agriculture. AIDS is also having long-term economic effects on agriculture by reducing the available workforce.
Recent examples include Ethiopia in 1973 and Ethiopia and Sudan in the late 1970s.
Famine in Asia
In China, the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong was a large scale social experiment. This resulted in a massive famine, generally considered to be caused by government economic policy.
There are a number of recorded famines in India:
- In 1630-1631, there was a great famine in India. Records indicate that cannibalism became so rampant that human flesh was sold on the open market.
- In 1770, India experienced the first Bengal famine of 1770 .
- In 1943, India experienced the second Bengal famine of 1943.
- In 1966, there was a 'near miss' in Bihar. The USA allocated 900,000 tons of grain to fight the famine.
Famine in Europe
The Great Famine of 1315-1317 (or to 1322) was the first crisis that would strike Europe in the 14th century, millions in northern Europe would die over an extended number of years, marking a clear end to the earlier period of growth and prosperity during the 11th and 12th centuries. Starting with bad weather in the spring of 1315, universal crop failures lasted until the summer of 1317, from which Europe did not fully recover until 1322. It was a period marked by extreme levels of criminal activity, disease and mass death, infanticide, and cannibalism. It had consequences for Church, State, European society and future calamities to follow in the 14th century.
The seventeenth century was a period of change for the food producers of Europe. For centuries they had lived primarily as subsistence farmers in a feudal system. They had obligations to their lords, who had suzerainty over the land tilled by their peasants. The lord of a fief would take a portion of the crops and livestock produced during the year. Peasants generally tried to minimize the amount of work they had to put into agricultural food production. Their lords rarely pressured them to increase their food output, except when the population started to increase, at which time the peasants were likely to increase the production themselves. More land would be added to cultivation until there was no more available and the peasants were forced to take up more labour-intensive methods of production. Nonetheless, they generally tried to work as little as possible, valuing their time to do other things such as hunting, fishing or relaxing, as long as they had enough food to feed their families. It was not in their interest to produce more than they could eat or store themselves.
During the seventeenth century, continuing the trend of previous centuries, there was an increase in market driven agriculture. Farmers, people who rented land in order to make a profit off of the product of the land, employing wage labour, became increasingly common, particularly in western Europe. It was in their interest to produce as much as possible on their land in order to sell it to areas that demanded that product. They produced guaranteed surpluses of their crop every year if they could. Farmers paid their labourers in money, increasing the commercialization of rural society. This commercialization had a profound impact on the behaviour of peasants. Farmers were interested in increasing labour input into their lands, not decreasing it as subsistence peasants were.
Subsistence peasants were also increasingly forced to commercialize their activities because of increasing taxes. Taxes that had to be paid to central governments in money forced the peasants to produce crops to sell. Sometimes they produced industrial crops , but they would find ways to increase their production in order to meet both their subsistence requirements as well as their tax obligations. Peasants also used the new money to purchase manufactured goods. The agricultural and social developments encouraging increased food production were gradually taking place throughout the sixteenth century, but were spurred on more directly by the adverse conditions for food production that Europe found itself in in the early seventeenth century — there was a general cooling trend in the Earth's temperature starting at the beginning end of the sixteenth century.
The 1590s saw the worst famines in centuries across all of Europe, except in certain areas, notably the Netherlands. Famine had been relatively rare during the sixteenth century. The economy and population had grown steadily as subsistence populations tend to when there is an extended period of relative peace (most of the time). Subsistence peasant populations will almost always increase when possible since the peasants will try to spread the work to as many hands as possible. Although peasants in areas of high population density, such as northern Italy, had learned to increase the yields of their lands through techniques such as promiscuous culture , they were still quite vulnerable to famines, forcing them to work their land even more intensively.
Famine is a very destabilizing and devastating occurrence. The prospect of starvation led people to take desperate measures. When scarcity of food became apparent to peasants, they would sacrifice long term prosperity for short term survival. They would kill their draught animals, leading to lowered production in subsequent years. They would eat their seed corn, sacrificing next year's crop in the hope that more seed could be found. Once those means had been exhausted, they would take to the road in search of food. They migrated to the cities where merchants from other areas would be more likely to sell their food, as cities had a stronger purchasing power than did rural areas. Cities also administered relief programs and bought grain for their populations so that they could keep order. With the confusion and desperation of the migrants, crime would often follow them. Many peasants resorted to banditry in order to acquire enough to eat.
One famine would often lead to difficulties in following years because of lack of seed stock or disruption of routine, or perhaps because of less available labour. Famines were often interpreted as signs of God's displeasure. They were seen as the removal, by God, of his gifts to the people of the Earth. Elaborate religious processions and rituals were made to prevent God's wrath in the form of famine.
The great famine of the 1590s began the period of famine and decline in the seventeenth century. The price of grain, all over Europe was high, as was the population. Various types of people were vulnerable to the succession of bad harvests that occurred throughout the 1590s in different regions. The increasing number of wage labourers in the countryside were vulnerable because they had no food of their own, and their meager living was not enough to purchase the expensive grain of a bad crop year. Town labourers were also at risk because their wages would be insufficient to cover the cost of grain, and to make matters worse, they often received less money in bad crop years since the disposable income of the wealthy was spent on grain. Often unemployment would be the result of the increase in grain prices, leading to ever increasing numbers of urban poor.
All areas of Europe were badly affected by the famine in these periods, especially rural areas. The Netherlands were able to escape most of the damaging effects of the famine, though the 1590s were still difficult years there. Actual famine did not occur, for the Amsterdam grain trade [with the ] guaranteed that there would always be something to eat in Holland although hunger was prevalent.
The Netherlands had the most commercialized agriculture in all of Europe at this time. They grew many industrial crops such as flax, hemp, and hops. Agriculture became increasingly specialized and efficient. As a result, productivity and wealth increased, allowing the Netherlands to maintain a steady food supply. By the 1620s the economy was even more developed, so the country was able to avoid the hardships of that period of famine with even greater impunity.
The years around 1620 saw another period of famines sweep across Europe. These famines were generally less severe than the famines of twenty five years earlier, but they were nonetheless quite serious in many areas.
Other areas of Europe have known famines much more recently. France saw famines as recently as the nineteenth century. Famine still occurred in eastern Europe during the 20th century.
The frequency of famine can vary with climate changes. For example, during the little ice age of the 15th-18th centuries, European famines grew more frequent than they had been during previous centuries.
Because of the frequency of famine in many societies it has long been a chief concern of governments and other authorities. In pre-industrial Europe, preventing famine, and ensuring timely food supplies was one of the chief concerns of many governments. They had various tools at their disposal to alleviate famines, including price controls, purchasing stockpiles of food from other areas, rationing, and regulation of production. Most governments were concerned by famine because it could lead to revolt and other forms of social disruption.
The harvest failures were devastating for the northern Italian economy. The economy of the area had recovered well from the previous famines, but the famines from 1618-21 coincided because of a period of war in the area. The economy did not recover fully for centuries. There were serious famines in the late 1640s and less severe ones in the 1670s throughout northern Italy.
England also lagged behind the Netherlands, but by 1650 their agricultural industry was commercialized on a wide scale. The last peace-time famine in England was in 1623-24. There were still periods of hunger, as in the Netherlands, but there were no more famines as such.
In 1783 the volcano Laki in south-central Iceland erupted. The lava caused little direct damage but ash and sulfur dioxide spewed out over most of the country and three-quarters of the island's livestock perished. In the following famine around ten thousand people died, one-fifth of the population of Iceland. [Asimov, 1984, 152-153]
Russia and USSR
Main article: Famines in Russia and USSR.
Droughts and famines in Imperial Russia are known to have happened every 10-13 years, with average droughts happening every 5-7 years. Famines continued in the Soviet era, most famously the Holodomor in Ukraine (1932-1933). The last major famine in the USSR happened in 1946 due to the severe drought.
- Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's New Guide to Science, pp. 152-153, Basic Books, Inc. : 1984.
- Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niņo Famines and the Making of the Third World, London, Verso, 2002
- Genady Golubev and Nikolai Dronin, Geography of Droughts and Food Problems in Russia (1900-2000), Report of the International Project on Global Environmental Change and Its Threat to Food and Water Security in Russia (February, 2004).
- Greenough, Paul R., Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal. The Famine of 1943-1944, Oxford University Press 1982
- Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982
- Sommerville, Keith. Why famine stalks Africa, BBC, 2001