The understanding of the causes of food crises, in the history of the social sciences, has evolved, from those stressing “natural” or lawlike causes, to those emphasizing the social nature of such crises. When Thomas Malthus, the English cleric and economist, first wrote his Esssay on the Principle of Population (1798), he understood the occurrence of food crises as the effect of lawlike processes, saying that food production grows “arithmetically,” while population grows “geometrically.” This Malthusian view of food crises as basically caused by insufficient production has in modern social science been replaced by an understanding stressing the social causation, both of the occurrence of food crises and of their causes. Seminal in this change of view is the economist Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines (1981).
With the development of the division of labor, with food markets extending the local village-town nexus to national and global scale, the occurrence of famine and hunger in principle gets disconnected from the local production conditions and their annual fluctuations. Thus, Sen showed that the Bengal Famine in 1943 was not primarily caused by harvest failures in Bengal, but by wider economic, social, and political conditions pertaining to the colonial economy, the nature of Bengali society, and political conditions during World War II (1939–1945).
When Malthus wrote his Essay, British agriculture was undergoing a major transformation in farming systems, usually referred to as high farming, allowing a much larger nonagricultural population to be fed by a diminishing work force in agriculture. Although this development is reflected in later editions of the Essay, the transformation was not foreseen, nor adequately conceptualized by Malthus.
A similar mismatch between the development of food production systems and social scientists’ understanding of them occurred during the Green Revolution. This term refers to the state-driven efforts from the late 1960s forward to increase national self-sufficiency in food grains in a number of Asian countries based on stepped-up investments in agricultural production and research in new crop technologies. For example, the economist Gunnar Myrdal published his Asian Drama in 1968. Typically for its time, the work was pessimistic about the future of an Asia with its high population growth rates. About a year earlier, the Green Revolution was launched, and over a generation, the threat of famine was almost entirely averted in the continent. While Myrdal was unable to foresee this development, younger generations of social scientists have emphasized and often exaggerated the negative distribution and environmental effects of the Green Revolution at the same time as its basic achievements of averting the threat of famine have been downplayed.
Never before and, as far as one can foresee, never again, have the challenges to the world food system been as great as during the second half of the twentieth century. During that period, global production of food grains grew at rates outstripping those of world population, thus defying Malthusian predictions. This is an obvious background to the shift in scholarly understanding of food crises, from stressing natural or lawlike tendencies to stressing the social dimension.
During the early years of the twenty-first century and despite record levels of world production of grain, approximately 15 percent of the world population was starving or suffering chronic undernutrition. This lack in food security affects the life chances of people, their longevity, and the chances of infants and mothers to survive childbirth. Also health conditions are affected and, in serious conditions of undernutrition, learning capabilities, thus impairing the overall life chances of the individual.
In the early twenty-first century, the highest incidence of undernutrition (over 35%) was in sub-Saharan Africa, with somewhat lower rates (between 20 and 35%) in the Sahel region of Africa, in parts of South and Central America, and parts of South, Southeast, and Central Asia. In a country like India, widespread undernutrition coexisted with a huge surplus of grain in government stocks, emphasizing the social causation of hunger.
Since decolonization in the 1960s, food production in sub-Saharan Africa grew steadily, but did not keep pace with the growth of population. As a consequence, the dependence of the subcontinent on imported food likewise grew. Again, stressing the complicated causation of food crises, many scholars argued that the import of cheap grain damaged African food production systems. Surplus stocks were dumped on world markets by the United States and the European Union and contributed to the insufficient growth of domestic production and thus to the food crisis in Africa.
There is an easily traceable influence from the world community of social scientists on the definition of food crisis and thus on the general evolvement of agricultural policies. The support to the political project of a Green Revolution in the West, at the time, was inspired by a Malthusian view of the population-food nexus and by a fear, during the cold war, that widespread hunger would lead to the spread of communism in Asia. Not only the Malthusian assumption, but also the assumption that hunger breeds radicalism, has been largely discredited by social science. Victims of food crisis are seldom radical and more often meek, apathetic, and subservient.
In tandem with the shift of focus from production to distribution, and from food crisis to food security, the political emphasis shifted both in national governments as well as in global organizations like the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), its World Food Program (WFP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). During the late 1990s, this shift in attention may have partly caused and at least legitimated the declining levels of aid going to the agricultural sector. In the early years of the twenty-first century this trend appeared to be broken, partly as a result of increased focus on world hunger in connection with the millennium shift, but perhaps partly due to a realization among policymakers and social scientists that the focus on issues of distribution should not be permitted to lead to the neglect of production. Without production there is obviously nothing to distribute.
SEE ALSO Food; Malnutrition; Malthusian Trap
Djurfeldt, Göran, and Magnus Jirström. 2005. The Puzzle of the Policy Shift: The Early Green Revolution in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In The African Food Crisis: Lessons from the Asian Green Revolution, eds. Göran Djurfeldt, Hans Holmén, Magnus Jirström, and Rolf Larsson. London: CABI.
Dyson, Tim. 1996. Population and Food: Global Trends and Future Prospects. London: Routledge.
Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1798. Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculation of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. London: J. Johnson.
Myrdal, Gunnar. 1968. Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. New York: Pantheon.
Sen, Amartya. 1981. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.