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Famine

Famine

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Famine is like insanity, hard to define but glaring enough when recognized. … one country will define as food shortage what another country would call famine” (Taylor 1947, pp. 98, 102). In recent years, and particularly in the United States, where food surpluses have been embarrassing politically (perhaps also morally), journals have been prone to report from abroad as “famines” what subsequently appear as shortages or merely threats of shortage. Shortages are not infrequently relieved before they become famines.

True famine is shortage of total food so extreme and protracted as to result in widespread persisting hunger, notable emaciation in many of the affected population, and a considerable elevation of community death rate attributable at least in part to deaths from starvation. Criteria do not exist to measure the degree of hunger, emaciation, or elevation of death rate serving to differentiate famine from shortage. The archetypical famine extends over a wide area and affects a large population. Starvation deaths on a small scale, as among members of an isolated family, a small hamlet, a group of travelers in wild country, an icebound ship, would not commonly be characterized as famine. Acute shortage of food for a few weeks, such as preharvest hunger in some parts of the underdeveloped world, is not famine. Lack of a particular customary food, such as sugar or beef, is not famine if there is abundance of other items. Shortage of a particular vitamin or mineral in a population, evidenced perhaps by uncommonly heavy incidence of scurvy, beriberi, pellagra, rickets, or impaired vision, is not famine, although in recent decades the word has been applied to such shortages.

The members of a community beset by famine gradually become greatly emaciated and increasingly weak and listless–eventually to the point of lying in homes or along the streets and roads, utterly inactive, skeletonized, often with swollen bellies, waiting for death. In famine-stricken regions beggars are encountered in abnormal numbers. There are riots, aimless wanderings, purposeful migrations; men, women, and children comb fields, alleys, and dumps, hoping to find a scrap of edible material. Livestock owned by the poor are sold or eaten.

A house-to-house survey in north China during the famine of 1920-1921 revealed that people were eating, among other items not in their normal diets, “flour made of ground leaves, fuller’s earth, flower seed, poplar buds, corncobs,... sawdust,. . . cotton seed, elm bark,. . . peanut hulls, sweet potato vines ground . . .” (Mallory 1926, p. 2). Kravchenko (1946, p. 113), who as an official of the government witnessed the famine of 1932-1933 in the Soviet Union, quotes a young peasant woman: “I will not tell you about the dead. … The half-dead, the nearly-dead are even worse. There are hundreds of people in Petrovo bloated with hunger. I don’t know how many die every day. Many are so weak that they no longer come out of their houses. A wagon goes around now and then to pick up the corpses. We’ve eaten everything we could lay our hands on–cats, dogs, field mice, birds. When it’s light tomorrow you will see the trees stripped of their bark. … And the horse manure has been eaten. … Sometimes there are whole grains in it.” Upon such horrors in a famine-ridden area are superimposed an upsurge of burglary, robbery with violence, murder for gain. Cannibalism occurs but is a rare as well as secret event of which little can be known. Sorokin (1942, p. 81) holds the opinion that less than one-third of one per cent of a population in noncannibalistic societies would practice cannibalism under pressure of starvation. Disease flourishes abnormally as resistance is reduced by low food intake.

The calamity of famine falls most heavily upon the poor, unless the state is dispossessing and punishing a former aristocracy or bourgeoisie. Food prices begin to rise even before damages to crops or military or political interferences with food inflow become generally apparent. People with ample purchasing power begin to accumulate stocks of food, either for their own future use or for sale at higher prices in weeks to come. Markets are swept clear of foodstuffs. Employment shrinks, and wages, where there is employment, seem not to rise in proportion to food prices. Families with low incomes (if not dependents of the wealthy) feel the pinch of hunger first. They sell their possessions–their clothing, household furnishings, house timbers; even the means customarily used to provision themselves with food are sold. According to Wood-ham Smith, during the great Irish potato famine of the 1840s fishermen all over Ireland pawned or sold their gear to buy meals (1962, p. 291). During that and other famines many poor peasants have eaten the seed necessary to produce a new crop. Children have been sold in Chinese famines; and men have sold themselves into slavery. Prostitution burgeons. Buyers seem always to appear, for although famine may decimate a large population, it does not annihilate. Some members of a stricken community profit from the circumstances of famine. Some are protected by their position in, or by power of, the government.

Causes . Famine has many causes. Nearly a century ago Walford (1878-1879, p. 450) listed 12, classifying them into natural causes beyond human control and artificial causes within human control. This distinction remains valid in a general way, although it is certainly true that man has learned to modify some of the natural causes as well as to minimize their impact. Natural causes include drought, excessive rains and flood, unseasonably cold weather, typhoons and other high winds, tidal waves, depredations by vermin and such insects as locusts, and plant diseases. They tend chiefly to reduce production of food and to destroy stocks. Occasionally, though mostly for short periods, floods or frosts restrict the flow of foodstuffs from surplus to deficit areas. The artificial causes–commonly political–include warfare that involves siege or blockade, or destruction of food stocks or growing grain; and wartime strains on economies that diminish manpower, machines, or fertilizers, thus reducing cultivated acreage, yields, and production. Revolutions, particularly when they involve a struggle between peasantry and officialdom, may reduce food acreages and yields and thus contribute to famine; so may excessive taxation or collection from peasants of grain surpluses, which happened in Soviet Russia in 1932-1933. It is difficult to perceive in the vague history of famines a major one in which political causes alone were operative, although this may be said of a good many minor famines–typified in sieges of cities. An age-old device of war is to impose famine on the enemy.

The great famines of the world have been due to natural forces, frequently intensified, however, by political factors. Sometimes economic or demographic situations–prevalence of poverty, including unemployment, peasant agriculture of the bare subsistence type, or many landless agricultural laborers in a population of high density–are regarded as causes of famines. They certainly make for vulnerability to famine, but unlike natural or political catastrophes are chronic rather than episodic in character.

The principal natural causes of major famines have been deficiency of rainfall (drought) or excess of rainfall (flood). Probably no major famines, but only localized and minor ones, have been due to excessively cold weather, high winds, or infestations of insects or vermin. Even a great swarm of locusts consuming every growing plant would rarely spread over an area more than a fraction as large as that covered by major drought or flood. Plant disease in the form of potato blight, however, did emerge on one occasion–in Ireland in 1845-1849–as the outstanding natural cause of a famine of great severity. Drought outranks flood as a major cause, except perhaps in north China, where in some summers the Yellow River may rise so high that it overflows its diked banks and renders unproductive the vast agricultural plains of its valley. Few flood famines of major proportions are recorded elsewhere, but one did occur, in the years 1315, 1316, and 1317, in the British Isles and on the Continent east and north of the Pyrenees and Alps at least through present-day Poland; mortality was high (Lucas 1930). Continuous rain greatly reduced the harvests of grain crops, and pestilence (murrain) killed many farm animals.

Famine follows upon extreme shortage, insufficiently relieved by inshipment, of the staple starchy food crop of the afflicted area. That crop is usually grain–usually wheat or rye in temperate zones; rice, a millet, or sorghum in warmer climates. Famine or general food shortage in northeastern Brazil, however, will chiefly represent deficiency of the manioc crop; in Ireland it was the potato crop. The grains and starchy roots provide the bulk of the energy-yielding food for most of the world’s population. In the absence of shortage of grain crops or (rarely) of starchy roots, a major natural famine is unlikely to occur. Grain is relatively cheap per thousand calories of nutriment, readily storable, and easily transported and processed into meal or flour. It is the most serviceable foodstuff to be brought in to ward off or relieve famine.

Geographical incidence . Whether natural or artificial, famine is always regional or local, never world-wide or continent-wide–or even nationwide in such vast countries as India, China, Russia, and Brazil. Conceivably, some large areas of the world have escaped, if judgment can be based upon the two major chronicles of famine (see Walford 1878-1879; Minnesota … 1950). Therein no mention is made of famine in Australia, in the great islands of the East Indies, or in Africa south of the Sahara. In North America and Central America, the only listing is of a famine in Mexico in 1051 (“Famine which caused the Toltecs to migrate”), and this is perhaps not clearly authenticated. South America seems to have experienced major famine only in northeastern Brazil (the sertāo), an area subject to recurrent severe droughts. Although the chroniclers of world famine make no mention of Japan, historians record three famines there in different regions, in 1732-1733, 1783-1787, and 1832-1836, severe enough to provoke violent riots (Sansom 1963, p. 222).

Europe west of Russia has witnessed no natural famine since the great Irish calamity of the 1840s, although artificial famines on a much smaller scale accompanied World War I, at least in Greece and in the western part of Holland. There were food shortages elsewhere both then and during and after World War I. Ancel Keys (see Minnesota … 1950, p. 1251) lists since 1850 one famine in Persia (1871), one in Asia Minor (1874-1875), one in Egypt (1897), one in Brazil (1877), and one or two in Morocco (1877-1878), indicating infrequent occurrence in those countries. In Russia over the same period no fewer than ten famines are noted, and in India 13, not counting the most recent one, the great Bengal famine of 1943. The number of famines in China since 1850 is uncertain, but a severe one occurred in 1877–1878; others in 1919-1920 and 1929-1930; and lesser ones in 1906, 1911, 1916, and 1924. Russia, India, and China over the past century have encompassed the outstanding famine areas of the world. Each contains regions adjacent to deserts, where rainfall is regularly low, highly variable, and of summer incidence; crops tend to fail in the exceptionally low-rainfall years. These regions also have a rather dense and impoverished agricultural population. In Russia the region most frequently drought-ridden centers in the Volga basin; in China, the valley of the Yellow River; in India, the northwest and the Deccan plateau. Each country also contains regions of abundant and dependable rainfall, where famine rarely occurs. But in all the great famines of the twentieth century natural and artificial causes worked simultaneously —drought and flood, war and revolution.

Relation to disease . Since famine stimulates human diseases, statistical differentiation between deaths from starvation and deaths from disease is practically impossible, as is close measurement of the degree to which famine elevates death (and morbidity) rates above normal levels. A dependable ranking of the famines of even the past century from most to least lethal is out of the question. Nevertheless, it can probably be said that there was mortality of a million persons or more above average at least in the Irish famine of 1845-1849; the Indian of 1877-1878, 1896-1897, 1899-1900, and 1943; the Russian of 1921-1922 and 1932-1933; and the Chinese of 1877-1878 and 1929-1930.

Famine reduces resistance to many diseases, including malaria, influenza, and tuberculosis; smallpox, cholera, typhus, or relapsing fever may plague the afflicted regions, especially if the population is crowded into unsanitary refugee camps, as on the fringes of cities. Acute deficiency diseases take a much larger toll than usual, for reduced food consumption is certain to bring intake of some of the essential vitamins and minerals below requirements. Acute and protracted diarrhea (“bloody flux”), induced by polluted water and the eating of improper materials, appears to be a lethal scourge, particularly among children. Famine not only increases death rates but also reduces birth rates, thus slowing growth of population. Advancing scientific knowledge of diseases and growth of both national and international health services in the twentieth century have greatly lessened the risk of high mortality as a result of famine.

Relation to migration . The circumstances of famine induce people to flee from it, not only to escape but also to seek work that will permit them to restore purchasing power in some form to family and friends left behind. Refugees from the countryside often flock to cities, especially centers of government. Of those who flee, many return upon the abatement of famine conditions, but others find new homes. The drought-ridden sertāo of northeastern Brazil has witnessed both the flight and return and the permanent export of population–not abroad, but to other parts of the nation (James 1942, p. 425; Smith 1879, pp. 398-435). Scarcity-induced migration that crosses national frontiers has not been common. The conspicuous example in history is the great migration of more than a million people from Ireland during and after the famine of the 1840s, the bulk of whom came to the United States, remaining to participate in and influence that country’s development. Internal migrations that may have occurred in Russia, China, and India have not been carefully recorded or studied. In general, demographers appear not to lay much stress on famine as a cause of the surging migrations of history or prehistory. The unrecorded breakup of families attributable to famine migration must have caused millions of individual catastrophes. The famine in Ireland led to the conviction in Great Britain that at all times basic food must be available as cheaply as possible to the poor, and the Corn Laws that had long held grain-prices high were repealed in 1846. Famines or shortages there and elsewhere have tended to force a lightening of the burden of taxes and rents upon peasant farmers and a wider acceptance by governments of responsibility for prevention and relief.

Remedial measures . Five centuries ago famine was regarded almost throughout the world as inevitable and was so accepted, often as a manifestation of divine wrath. Occasionally, however, there were rulers who sought to prevent or relieve it. The Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt, storing grain in “fat” years against the “lean” that might follow, exemplifies probably the most common method of famine prevention in antiquity and medieval times. The rulers of the Inca Empire guarded against famine by storage and by construction of irrigation canals. Irrigation, a safeguard against famine because it both elevates and stabilizes the acre-yields of crops, was practiced some 5,000 years ago in Sumer and is very ancient elsewhere in Asia and north Africa, but famine can hardly have been the sole stimulus for irrigation. Flood control by dikes and dams is also an ancient device which militates against famine but has other values. Destruction of stores of grain and of irrigation and flood-control works is obviously a method of creating artificial famine.

Natural famines having their origin mainly in drought or flood, sometimes in plant disease or insect pest, are not now regarded as inevitable. Within nations, a naturally induced or threatened food shortage is certain to be met by domestic efforts to ward off or relieve it. This was not true in the Soviet Union as late as 1932-1933 but occurred there in 1963-1964, following a very severe drought, when a huge quantity of grain was imported and paid for. So it was in China a year or two earlier. India and Pakistan have been able since war ended in 1945 to arrange, partly on the basis of international credits, for sporadic grain imports sufficient to preclude famine; so also have Brazil and Yugoslavia. The disposition of all governments by the 1960s was to prevent or relieve famine or shortages within their own borders; and of some governments to donate or loan funds or food surpluses to prevent or relieve famine beyond their own borders. The capacity of nations to pay or to loan or donate has increased. International cooperation in famine relief or prevention has increased in the past century, as evidenced by such organizations as the Red Cross, the China Relief commissions, the American Relief Administration of World War I, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration following World War II, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Supplies have been available despite the huge growth of world population; and with the advancement in agriculture everywhere, few localities stand in such risk of drought or pests or plant disease as prevailed even half a century ago. If, nevertheless, natural calamity strikes, the network of transport, by ship overseas, by barge on canal and river, by rail, by truck on roads, even by air, has so grown and is now so far-flung and efficient that stricken regions can be reached. Governments have learned how to ration food in short supply in a manner more equitable than was possible earlier.

Progress in coping with natural famine is thus apparent politically, economically, and socially. Until the end of the twentieth century there seems no reason why true famine of natural origin should be endured in any country, for over so short a time world population seems unlikely to outrun food supplies. What the more distant future holds is purely conjectural. But even in the shorter term, it cannot be said that artificial famine, induced by war or revolution, may not again appear.

M. K. BENNETT

[See alsoFOOD.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bhatia, B. M. 1963 Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India, 1860–1945. New York: Asia Publishing House.

Fisher, Harold H. 1927 The Famine in Soviet Russia, 1919-1923: The Operations of the American Relief Administration. New York; Macmillan

Colder, Frank A.; and HUTCHINSON, LINCOLN 1927 On the Trail of the Russian Famine. Stanford Univ. Press.

James, Preston E. (1942) 1959 Latin America.3d ed. New York: Odyssey.

Jasny, Naum 1949 The Socialized Agriculture of the USSR: Plans and Performance. Stanford Univ. Press.

Knight, Henry 1954 Food Administration in India: 1939–47. Stanford Univ. Press.

Kravchenko, Victor 1946 I Chose Freedom: The Per- sonal and Political Life of a Soviet Official. New York: Scribner.

Loveday, Alexander 1914 The History and Economics of Indian Famines. London: Bell.

Lucas, Henry S. 1930 The Great European Famine of 1315, 1316, and 1317. Speculum5 : 343–377.

Mallory, Walter H. 1926 China: Land of Famine. New York: American Geographical Society.

Minnesota, University OF, LABORATORY OF PHYSIOLOGICAL HYGIENE 1950 The Biology of Human Starvation.2 vols. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Salaman, Redcliffe 1949 The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Sansom, George B. 1963 A History of Japan. Volume 3: 1615–1867. Stanford Univ. Press.

Smith, Herbert H. 1879 Brazil: The Amazons and the Coast. New York: Scribner.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1942 Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life. New York: Dutton.

Taylor, A. E. 1947 Famine. Unpublished manuscript, Stanford Univ., Food Research Institute.

Walford, Cornelius 1878-1879 The Famines of the World: Past and Present. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society41:433-526; 42 : 79–265.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil B. 1962 The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by New American Library.

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Famine

FAMINE

Famine is defined as an extreme shortage of food or lack of access to food by a population, accompanied by an increase in death rates. Deaths during famine occur not only due to malnutrition, but also from infectious diseases to which malnutrition predisposes the population and from the social ills brought about by food shortage. Famine is a true public health emergency, and unfortunately has been a common human experience throughout history. The fundamental menace of famine is expressed in the Biblical reference to the "four horsemen of the apocalypse"meaning famine, pestilence (disease), war, and death.

There have been thousands of famines over the last several centuries. The causes have included natural disasters such as droughts and floods; war, civil strife, and population displacement; and economic failure. In spite of the fact that worldwide food production has improved in the past several decades, and that global food supplies are sufficient to feed the world's current population, an estimated 20 percent of people in developing countriesmore than 800 million peoplelack access to enough food on a regular and predictable basis. The number of countries experiencing severe food shortages has almost tripled since 1990. Compared to poverty, which is the most common cause of malnutrition worldwide, famine is preventable. Access to food has been repeatedly recognized as a basic human right. Promotion of this right requires international cooperation and a coordinated effort.

CAUSES OF FAMINE

The immediate causes of famine are inadequate food production or market availability, price fluctuations, and limited household assets. Underlying causes, however, almost always involve misguided or deliberate public policy, repressive political systems, or natural or human-caused disaster. In countries with preexisting widespread poverty, unemployment, or debt, natural and human-caused disasters are the most common causes of food shortages and famine. Additionally, hunger has been often used as a deliberate weapon. Access to food is such a basic human need that control of the food supply translates into direct political and economic power. Over and over again in history, specific populations have been the victims of an interruption of their food supply with the intent to subdue them or drive them away.

An example of the chain of events that leads to a "natural" famine (not the direct result of war or civil strife) is a poor harvest due to a drought or flood, resulting in reduced wages and rising food prices. The overall result is a decline in both food availability and food access.

Large famines caused millions of deaths in the early 1930s in the Ukraine, and in 19591961 in China; both occurred due to policies that resulted in reduced food availability. One of the most recent tragedies with regard to food shortage began in the mid-1990s in North Korea, where a steady economic decline and a series of floods, droughts, and failed harvests was superimposed on the economic blow brought about by the abrupt end of preferential trade with the former Soviet Union. A closed governmental system has limited humanitarian aid in this situation.

War and civil strife are two of the greatest causes of famine. Armies destroy crops and consume available food. Mass migration is also common for those living in war zones. Civil wars often cause famine, as everyone within the country is affected. Famines due to war occurred in Holland in 1945, the Sudan in 1988, Somalia in 1991, and a large famine in Zaire in 1991 was due to civil war. Severe food deprivation characterized the ethnic conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa in the late 1990s. The Bosnian war of 1998 included deliberate interruption of the flow of basic food supplies to the Kosovar population.

Finally, there are several parts of the world where famines occur on a regular basis. Much of Africa and Southeast Asia are subject to repeated food shortages. Nations in these areas are chronically vulnerable to changes in weather, or they have unstable political situations. India suffered recurrent famines up until the time of independence from colonial rule in the midtwentieth century, but has not experienced a major famine since that time, illustrating that prevention is possible even in chronically famine-prone areas.

CONSEQUENCES OF FAMINE

The consequences of famine are physical, psychological, social, and economic. Malnutrition results from food shortage within weeks. Children fail to grow and cannot learn in school, and both adults and children experience weight loss, lack of energy, and decreased work ability. Permanent blindness can result from vitamin A deficiency that accompanies a deterioration of dietary quality. Malnutrition also puts people at a high risk of dying from common infectious illnesses. Diseases such as measles, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea are the most common causes of death during famine. Psychological impacts result from fear and uncertainty about having enough to eat or to feed one's family. Socially, migration is a common occurrence during periods of famine, and resettling in other areas or in refugee camps disrupts social relationships and hierarchies. Lack of food also creates disharmony as people resort to desperate measures (such as stealing) in order to eat, or when old conflicts are renewed due to some groups having more food than others. Losing land ownership and selling valuable assets such as livestock, jewelry, or other goods can prevent families from recovering financially after a famine.

RESPONSES TO FAMINE

Responses to famine take place at the individual, governmental, and international level. At the individual level, families go through a series of progressively more drastic coping behaviors. First, food consumption becomes more restricted, and households attempt to generate more income to purchase food. Adults will usually restrict their own food consumption in order to protect children. Typically, adults take on extra jobs and unemployed family members enter the labor force to earn additional money. If the stress continues, families borrow or accept donations from friends, relatives, or government agencies, and they may sell household items, livestock, or even vital assets such as seeds and land in order to obtain money to buy food. In extreme cases, people leave their homes and migrate to other areas in order to survive.

Responses at the government level depend upon how early an impending famine is detected and how prepared a government is to respond to the situation. For example, in Rajasthan, India, there is a governmental system of grain storage that can be distributed during periods of shortage. There are also programs in place for public works projects so that people can work for food during a crisis period. Furthermore, investment in roads, trains, and communications helps get food to people faster in times of need. In contrast, most of sub-Saharan Africa has little in the way of effective government antifamine plans and policies. Most of the sharing and distribution of food reserves takes place on an individual or community basis, and most countries do not have food stocks to distribute in case of emergency. Food must be imported, which is expensive, or countries are forced to rely on international food aid when famine threatens.

Many organizations provide food aid to countries and individuals during famines. The World Food Programme of the United Nations is the largest international mechanism for providing food aid where it is needed; up to date information can be found at the program's web site, http://www.wfp.org. The Hunger Site, at http://www.thehungersite.com, provides a world map where each click on a location is linked to donations from multiple donors to the World Food Programme. Many other governmental and nongovernmental organizations are also involved in responding to food emergencies as they arise.

PREVENTING FAMINE

Famine can be prevented in several ways. One strategy is to pay more attention to environmental issues, such as the rotation of crops to help to keep the soil rich in nutrients or maintaining vegetative growth in fields year-round to keep soil from being blown or washed away. New agricultural technologies, including new fertilizers and pesticides and genetically improved crops, can also help avoid famine without harming the environment. Storing food during years of good harvest and redistribution of extra food and seeds to those who need them is another way of maintaining a food reserve. Finally, communication and coordination among communities and governments in need is essential to help prevent famine. Governments in famine-prone areas need to be able to predict in advance what areas may be vulnerable, assess needs, obtain food and necessary supplies, and transport these items to food-short areas in a timely manner. In Africa, a system called the Famine Early Warning System has had success in famine prevention. This program uses several methods to assess impending risks of famine. The program monitors weather in Africa and uses satellite photographs to see if plants are healthy or deteriorating. It also monitors crop growth, food availability, and prices in local markets.

Famines due to "natural" causes can be avoided through coordinated effort to keep governments and people alert and prepared and to provide mechanisms for people to get food when they need it. Food emergencies caused by war, civil strife, and political will depend on recognition of and respect for the fundamental right to food as a basic human right, and on enforcement of this principle in international law.

Gail G. Harrison

Ame Stormer

Nasrin Omidrar

(see also: International Health; Nutrition; Politics of Public Health; Poverty and Health; Refugee Communities; Right to Health; War )

Bibliography

Action Against Hunger (2001). The Geopolitics of Hunger, 20002001: Hunger and Power. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1998). The Right to Food in Theory and Practice. New York: United Nations.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service (1992). "Famine-Affected, Refugee and Displaced Populations: Recommendations for Public Health Issues." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 41:176.

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Famine

Famine

PEASANT SOCIETIES

PROXIMATE CAUSE

ULTIMATE CAUSE

SUMMARY

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Drought is the proximate cause of most peacetime famines in peasant societies, but excessive rain can have the same effect. The best example of this is the Irish famine from 1845 to 1850. Three phrases guide analysis in this entry: peasant societies, proximate cause, and ultimate cause.

PEASANT SOCIETIES

The peasant concept of the good life is the minimum expenditure of physical labor. Minimum labor expenditures equate to subsistence labor norms in food production. In normal crop years, subsistence labor norms lead peasants to grow enough food to last until the next harvest on the assumption that every crop year will be normal. Peasants know that every crop year will not be normal, but they prefer the marginal food safety of normal crop years if they can minimize the labor of cultivation. A minimal expenditure of agricultural labor to grow subsistence amounts of food is known as the subsistence compromise. The practice of the subsistence compromise defines who are peasants.

The practice of the subsistence compromise is clearly seen in most photographs of peasant cultivation practices that reach the media. These photographs show women planting rice sprouts in ponded fields, or dibbling maize or sorghum seeds into poorly prepared ground, or hoeing a patch of maize or sorghum overgrown with weeds, or harvesting grain with a child strapped on their backs. Where are the men for this sustained labor? The only labor that is gender specific to men is plowing and digging potatoes, yams, and cassava. Almost all of the rest of the labor of cultivation is done by women and children. This is why high birthrates are desirable in peasant societies. Children can do much of the agricultural labor that is gender specific to women.

PROXIMATE CAUSE

In order to live by subsistence labor norms, peasants willingly endure seasonal hunger in poor crop years and risk famines in consecutive poor crop years. Before the mid-twentieth century, there were few roads or vehicle tracks into peasant villages. Starving peasants fled their villages in search of food (as Irish peasants did) or watched their children starve so that some adults would survive. During the second half of the twentieth century, roads or vehicle tracks were built into most peasant villages. When there was severe hunger, food donations arrived from central governments (to prevent mass migrations to cities that governments could not control) or food was donated by nongovernmental agencies. Donated food was essential to prevent starvation because peasants produced few commodities to sell for money to purchase food.

ULTIMATE CAUSE

The marginal food safety of peasant households in normal crop years is due to deficient labor applied to cultivation. The subsistence compromise produces no food surplus for consumption in consecutive poor crop years, and peasants experience privation. The cumulative effect of consecutive poor crop years is famine conditions.

Subsistence Social Values This is an unfamiliar concept for most people in commercial cultures. They find it difficult to believe that cultivators voluntarily produce subsistence amounts of food when increased labor expenditures, especially by males, could produce abundant harvests.

Peasants use four strategies to minimize agricultural labor and, at the same time, produce sufficient food in normal crop years to last until the next harvest. They practice cultivation techniques requiring minimal labor expenditures; they control land use with some variety of communal tenure so that a villages arable land can be continually divided to accommodate additional households; they have many children to whom they can transfer labor at young ages; and they mitigate the worst effects of deficient harvests by sharing food among village households.

Analysis The welfare of peasant households does not depend on the acquisition of money. It depends on control of land use. When peasants control land use they can control labor expenditures and this means performing subsistence labor norms in cultivation. Peasant households can and do reject the earning of money incomes because earning money incomes requires continuous labor. As long as they control land use they have little interest in performing continuous wage labor (commercial labor norms). The reciprocal of subsistence labor norms is accepting privation in poor crop years.

Most economists do not recognize the distinction between subsistence labor norms (subsistence social values) and commercial labor norms (commercial social values). They assume that all persons want to earn money incomes and willingly perform commercial labor norms to acquire sufficient money to constitute an income. This is a false assumption. Economists make this assumption because they confuse monetization with commercial social values. Almost all peasant societies are monetized.

Peasants, however, want to acquire sufficient money to purchase a limited number of manufactured items. The most commonly purchased items are textiles, edged steel tools, steel cooking pots, plastic buckets, and sandals. After they have acquired enough money to purchase these items they cease laboring to produce additional products for market sale. Anthropologists call the money acquired to make these purchases a target sum.

Peasant households can subsist without the use of money as many do in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia, and Indian villages where the Hindu caste system operates. Households subsist without the use of money because the items they purchase can be made by resident artisans (pottery cooking pots, hand-loom textiles), as they were in the past. These items have a customary barter value, usually measured by handfuls or pots of grain.

It is, however, advantageous to purchase manufactured items because they have greater utility and durability. It is also advantageous to purchase them because the labor expended to produce products for market sale is less than that required to make artisan products, and much of this labor can be done by children. If households grow a small amount of food for sale, this is their exchange commodity. In poor crop years, however, it is eaten and no purchases are made of manufactured items. Households subsist without the use of money.

Most economists do not understand that money incomes do not exist in peasant villages. Economists, however, create them by assigning a money value to the harvest of peasants or to the number of hours of labor they assume were expended to grow a households annual food supply. In reality, the food grown by peasants has no money value. If it were sold, peasant households would starve. Likewise, the labor that is expended to grow a subsistence food supply has no market value because no money is received.

Economists create fictitious money incomes for peasant households in order to compare the welfare of peasant households with the welfare of households in commercial cultures. Fictitious incomes are created for peasant households by applying the techniques of financial analysis to subsistence cultures. Fictitious incomes created by economists make peasants poor in relation to the money incomes earned by households in commercial cultures. Peasant households, however, are not poor. They are subsistent. Sometimes economists use terms like subsistence income, nonwage income, implicit income, leisure income, or income concept to indicate that they know the incomes they have created are fictitious; however, they continue to compare real and fictitious incomes. The result is confusion.

The fictitious incomes created by economists cannot be used to compare the welfare of households in subsistence and commercial cultures because incomes in commercial cultures are real money. Real money incomes measure household welfare in commercial cultures because households require money to purchase their food, clothing, and housing needs. Financial analysis operates with reasonable efficiency in commercial cultures but has universally failed to measure household welfare when applied to subsistence cultures.

Creating fictitious incomes for peasant households creates huge distortions in policies recommended by economists to increase food production in peasant nations. The failure of economists to recognize the fundamental difference between subsistence and commercial labor norms has largely contributed to the continual failure of policies that economists recommend to initiate economic development. Economic development must begin with producing assured food surpluses in all crop years in order to feed full-time wage laborers living in cities. The failure of their policies is most obvious in sub-Saharan Africa and in many Latin American nations.

Increasing food production requires different policies from those recommended by economists. As the term political economy indicates, political policies precede economic policies. Unfortunately, most economists are poorly prepared to recommend political policies because their training is financial and they are indoctrinated to believe that money incomes are the universal way of measuring household welfare.

SUMMARY

The famines that occurred in the last twenty years of the twentieth century were due to war. Peacetime famines have been avoided by food gifts to households in affected peasant societies. Peacetime famine conditions will continue to recur in peasant societies until central governments enforce a change in land tenure from communal to freehold so that money taxes can be collected on agricultural land. In freehold tenure, households that practice the subsistence compromise and fail to pay money taxes can be evicted and forced to become supervised, paid agricultural laborers who can produce assured food surpluses.

SEE ALSO Food Crisis; Peasantry; Subsistence Agriculture

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Seavoy, Ronald E. 1986. Famine in Peasant Societies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Seavoy, Ronald E. 1989. Famine in East Africa: Food Production and Food Policies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Seavoy, Ronald E. 2000. Subsistence and Economic Development. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Ronald E. Seavoy

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Famine

Famine

Every historical era has suffered the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mentioned in the Bible famine, death, war, and the plague. Famine in the modern era is thought to be caused as much by other factors than food shortages due to nature. Famine involves a severe eruption of acute starvation and a sharp increase of mortality affecting a large segment of the population. Chronic hunger is characterized by sustained nutritional deprivation on a persistent basis.

Famine and chronic hunger are part of a food-availabilityfood-deprivation continuum. Either may be due to (1) forces of nature such as drought, plant diseases, or flood; (2) human conditions resulting from war, civil strife, genocide, market forces (e.g., hoarding, graft, and profiteering), and other exploitive governmental or corporation policies (where the goal is profit at all cost); or (3) both. Famine may be an intentional tactic or unintentional outcome of human behavior.

Estimates of excess death (i.e., actual famine mortality minus pre-famine mortality) due to hunger and hunger-related diseases of children, women, and men is around 40 million per year. During the famine of China, from 1958 to 1961, between 23 and 30 million people died. However, the greatest proportion of people diedone-eighth of their population, or 1 million people during the Irish "Great Hunger" of 1845 to 1852. Dysentery, typhus, typhoid fever, and other infectious diseases, more so than literal starvation, were the primary causes of death.

Thomas Robert Malthus, an eighteenth-century British economist, theorized that famine, along with war and disease, was an adaptation to the imbalance between available food and population size. The neo-Malthusian view remains influential. Preventive policies would include increased food production capitalizing on technology (including improved fertilizers and transgenic food), and population growth restraints. Other conservationists and economists argue that high food production cannot be, and is not, maintained because a growing share of land and water used for crop production is unsustainable due to the various forms of pollution, increasing population growth in at-risk geographic areas, and global warming.

The Nobel Prizewinning economist Amartya Sen's entitlement theory sees famine resulting not from the unavailability of food, but the lack of means to purchase or otherwise obtain food. Prevention is rooted in (1) global, coordinated public policies that control exploitive local and global market forces and that provide import of surplus food and (2) entitlements that allow obtaining food such as free food at distribution centers, money, jobs, education, and health care in at-risk geographic areas such as states in sub-Sahara Africa, South America, and Asia.

Other scholars, like Jenny Edkins, lecturer in international politics at the University of Wales, see famine as essentially resulting from modernity, including poverty, violence, and the bio-politicizing of famine. These scholars would re-politicize the issue of famine with the goal of preventing violence, war, genocide, and enhanced human rights. For example, the genocidal policies of the Stalinist regime resulted in the Ukraine famine during 1932 and 1933 that caused the deaths of some 6 to 7 million people. Periodic genocidal wars and drought combine to produce famine and chronic starvation in many of the countries of southern Africa.

In the twenty-first century, food security is declared a basic human right by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is defined as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food is a basic need. If unmet by institutions and structures designed to provide for the general welfare, then food insecurity is a threat to any social system. Can global food security be attained? The crucial issue is whether the wealthy nations and the political and economic forces involved in the globalization process have the will to implement the preventive policies suggested by social scientists and humanitarians.

Specific, international measures to increase food security include a structure (especially legislation with enforcement powers) that guarantees a livable wage which enables workers to live healthily and well. Other measures include maintaining environmental security, implementing strong human rights laws, implementing safe and sane food technologies with special reference to transgenic foods, providing an international food distribution system to at-risk locations and people, instituting a famine early warning system such as the one developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and encouraging democratic and open societies with special emphasis on a free and inquiring press, educated public, and adversarial politics.

See also: Disasters

Bibliography

Brown, Lester R., Michael Renner, and Brian Halwell. Vital Signs 2000. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Daily, Gretchen, et al. "Global Food Supply: Food Production, Population Growth, and the Environment." Science 281, no. 5381 (1998):12911292.

Dreze, Jean, and Amartya Sen, eds. Hunger and Public Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Edkins, Jenny. Whose Hunger?: Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Gráda, Cormac Ó. Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Gráda, Cormac Ó. "Was the Great Famine Just Like Modern Famines?" In Helen O'Neill and John Toye eds., A World without Famine: New Approaches to Aid and Development. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Guerinot, Mary Lou. "Plant Biology Enhanced: The Green Revolution Strikes Gold." Science 287, no. 5451 (2000):241243.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1968.

O'Neill, Helen, and John Toye, eds. "Introduction." A World without Famine: New Approaches to Aid and Development. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Internet Resources

Leidenfrost, Nancy B. "Definitions of Food Security Extension Service." In the Brown University [web site]. Available from www.brown.edu/Departments/World_Hunger_Program/hungerweb/intro/food_security.html.

Sen, Amartya. "Public Action to Remedy Hunger." In the Brown University [web site]. Available from www.thp.org/reports/sen/sen890.htm#n1.

"Ukranian Famine: U.S. Library of Congress Soviet Online Exhibit, 2001. " In the Soviet Archives Exhibit [web site]. Available from www.ibiblio.org/expo/soviet.exhibit/famine.html.

DANIEL LEVITON

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Famine

Famine

Famine is the culmination of a long process, typically covering two or more crop seasons, in which increasing numbers of people lose their access to food. Although early detection seems highly possible, the origins of famine are unclear, and early response is therefore rare. Famine is distinct from generalized chronic hunger, malnutrition , or undernourishment. It is a more dramatic and exceptional event that triggers institutional responses.

Famine has been defined as the regional failure of food production or distribution systems leading to sharply increased mortality due to starvation and associated disease. Excessive mortalitydeaths that would not have occurred otherwiseare a core feature of famine. Other important determinants of famine are regional issues, shifting market demand for different foods, and changes in the food aggregate supply. Famine also leads to extensive social disintegration, hoarding of food, smuggling, black-market food sales, and crime. Many people in distress sell their only assets such as their jewelry, animals, or land. Families often divide in search of work or succorwives may even be cast adrift and children sold. Out-migration also increases as people abandon their lands, homes, and communities in desperation.

Famine is generally accompanied by a recession in the entire rural economy, affecting production and exchange, employment, and the income of farm and nonfarm households alike. Landless laborers, artisans, and traders are among those most vulnerable to famine because of shrinking demand for their labor, goods, and services. Fishermen and those who raise livestock are also vulnerable because they rely on the exchange of meat and marine products to obtain the cheaper grain calories they require. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prizewinning economist, has argued that famine is more than just severe food shortage. His economic theory of famine is based on evidence that even with relatively small changes in the food supply, famine has been caused by other economic factors. Each person has an economic "entitlement," a range of different goods that can be acquired with an individual's resources, according to Sen. People starve when their entitlement is not enough to procure the food required to survive. How much the food is available to people depends on income distribution and the ability to provide services that others are willing to pay for. However, this does not mean that the supply of food is irrelevant in the cause of famine. A scarcity of food will usually increase the competition among people to acquire it, and thereby increase its price. For those already close to the margin of hunger and poverty, this may drive them to the point of starvation.

The twentieth century saw four major famines: the great Bengal famine in colonial India under British rule in 19431944, in which more than three million people died; the famine in several provinces of Ethiopia between 1972 and 1974; the drought and famine in the Sahel region of Africa between 1968 and 1973; and the famine in Bangladesh in 1974 (the same region as the 19431944 famine, but now under a different government). It has been argued that the only way certain parts of the world can become less prone to famine is through economic development.

see also Disaster Relief Organizations; Emergency Nutrition Network; Food Aid for Development; Food and Agriculture Organization; Food Insecurity; Hunger; Malnutrition; United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Nilesh Chatterjee

Bibliography

Field, John O. (1993). The Challenge of Famine: Recent Experience, Lessons Learned. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press.

Sen, Amartya (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Young, E. M. (1997). World Hunger. London: Routledge.

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famine

famine may be defined as the occurrence of serious food shortages resulting in significant rises in the death rate. Mortality during famines was rarely caused solely by starvation but from related diseases like dysentery, typhoid, and typhus. Hence deaths from food shortages might occur some time after initial harvest failures. Increased migration out of famine-hit areas to towns and cities could also raise death rates since rural refugees often encountered diseases to which they had no immunity, or transmitted epidemics to urban dwellers.

Vulnerability to famine depended on more than the local harvest. Also important were the amount of food imported, the efficiency of distribution and relief systems, and the ability to purchase supplies in the market-place. Famines were more likely to occur when harvests failed successively, when population pressure on resources was extensive, and where populations were over-reliant on one particular crop. Pastoral areas of Britain, often located in more remote upland areas on poorer soils, where animal husbandry took precedence over grain production, were usually more vulnerable to famine than grain-producing regions.

What has been described as the worst famine in England in the last millennium occurred in 1315–18, after a century of rapid population growth, when a succession of disastrous harvests killed between 10 and 15 per cent of the population. Lesser famines had also occurred in 1293–5 and 1310–12. After the arrival of plague in 1348, however, England's agrarian economy was more than able to feed its much reduced population, and famine mortality disappeared until population growth accelerated again in the 16th cent.

When famine returned, the worst crisis took place in 1594–8 with another less serious in 1623–4. Even these were concentrated in England's more remote northern upland pastoral areas, notably Cumberland, and most of the country was unaffected. Famines disappeared from England after 1640. Their end was facilitated by improved agricultural productivity, a well-developed marketing network, and the introduction of England's poor law (1601) which alleviated distress when harvests failed.

England's Celtic neighbours experienced more severe famines for far longer. Scotland suffered spectacularly in 1623–4 when death rates in some areas increased eightfold. Increased specialization on pastoral agriculture in the 18th cent. seems to have increased vulnerability. Scotland suffered severe famine mortality in the 1690s which may have killed 15 per cent of its population, lowland areas were hit in 1740–1, and parts of the Highlands suffered famine late into that century. Famines were experienced in Ireland in the 1620s, 1640s, and 1650s. As its textile industry declined and the diet of its poor increasingly became dominated by the potato, Ireland became more rather than less famine-prone. Serious mortality occurred in 1727–9 and the 1740–1 scourge killed some quarter of a million people. Famines occurred again in 1744–6, 1800–1, and 1817–19 but these were dwarfed by the last Great Famine in Ireland, caused by potato blight which ravaged the staple potato crop for four successive years, 1845–8. Recent estimates put the number of deaths attributable to this disaster at 1 million.

Jeremy Boulton

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famine

famine Extreme prolonged shortage of food, produced by both natural and man-made causes. If it persists, famine results in widespread starvation and death. Famine is often associated with drought, or alterations in weather patterns, which leads to crop failure and the destruction of livestock. However, warfare and complex political situations resulting in the mismanagement of food resources are equally likely causes.

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famine

fam·ine / ˈfamən/ • n. extreme scarcity of food. the famine of 1921–22. ∎  a shortage: the cotton famine of the 1860s. ∎ archaic hunger.

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famine

famine XIV. — (O)F., f. faim hunger :- L. famēs.

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famine

famineexamine, famine, gamin •admin • jasmine • Yasmin • Brahmin •women • specimen • madwomen •clanswomen • charwomen •craftswomen • draughtswomen •gentlewomen • Welshwomen •Frenchwomen •airwomen, chairwomen •laywomen • stateswomen •saleswomen • policewomen •kinswomen • Englishwomen •businesswomen • Irishwomen •congresswomen • countrywomen •jurywomen • servicewomen •tribeswomen •Scotswomen, yachtswomen •forewomen • horsewomen •sportswomen • oarswomen •councilwomen • townswomen •noblewomen • spokeswomen •frontierswomen • alderwomen •anchorwomen • washerwomen •Ulsterwomen • churchwomen •catechumen, illumine, lumen •bitumen •albumen, albumin •Duralumin • cumin • Benjamin •theremin • vitamin •determine, ermine, vermin

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