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Famine, Concepts and Causes of


Famines usually have demographic causes as well as consequences, and the deaths that result from famines offer a ready means of ranking them. However, defining famine remains a controversial issue. Traditionally famines entailed both a decline in the food supply and excess mortality, but in the twenty-first century a looser definition encompassing periods of chronic hunger in which neither food availability decline (FAD) nor excess mortality is present holds sway. Even confining attention to "famines that kill" leaves room for ambiguity. On the one hand, famines that produce excess mortality usually only represent peaks in chronic or endemic malnutrition that renders "normal" mortality high. On the other hand, famine deaths are often difficult to distinguish from deaths caused by infectious diseases such as malaria and cholera. It follows that the dividing line between crises that reduce the resistance of the poor to disease and harvest shortfalls that result in literal starvation is not always clear-cut.

Why Famines?

Throughout history poor harvests resulting from ecological shocks often have been the proximate cause of famines. Well-known examples include the eruptions of the volcanoes Laki (Iceland in the 1780s) and Tambora (Indonesia in the 1810s); Phytophthora infestans, or potato blight (Europe in the 1840s); and the El Niño drought (Asia in the late 1870s). However, such exogenous shocks were neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of famine. In sufficiently poor economies the yield variation of the staple crop or crops was enough to produce a famine every decade or two. Back-to-back or repeated harvest shortfalls such as those that occurred in Ireland in the 1840s, India in the 1890s, and China in 1958–1960 have tended to produce the worst famines. Major famines have rarely been the product of livestock deaths alone. The severity of such crises also depended on other factors, such as the effectiveness of relief, the quality of the bureaucracy, the size of the voluntary sector, and the threat or presence of warfare in the affected area.

However, for the economist T. R. Malthus over-population, which may be defined as a state in which a significant proportion of the population is close to the margin of subsistence, was the fundamental reason for famines. When in 1798 he described "gigantic inevitable famine" as nature's response of last resort, Malthus would influence both the policy and the analytical response to famines for a long time to come.

The connection between famine and overpopulation may be looser than Malthus asserted, but there can be little doubt that throughout history overpopulation has increased vulnerability to famine. The reason is obvious: Historically, those close to subsistence were in no position to save, trade down to more economical foods, or guard against attendant infectious diseases.

Amartya Sen (1981) and others claim that this Malthusian interpretation is less relevant to twentieth-century famines. Though not denying a role for harvest-induced reductions in food availability, Sen emphasizes the impact of market-induced shifts on the purchasing power, or "entitlements," of certain sectors of the population. Sen first applied this entitlements approach to the Great Bengal Famine of 1942–1943, arguing that hoarding and speculation on the part of producers and merchants at the expense of the landless poor, rather than a significant harvest shortfall per se, were responsible for the crisis. In this case misjudgments by producers forced prices higher than were justified by food availability and beyond the reach of the poor. Other studies point to the role of market failure in exacerbating famines in Bangladesh in 1974 and in Sudan and Ethiopia in the 1980s. Research on how markets function during famines remains thin, however. Meanwhile Sen's focus on shifting entitlements in the absence of FAD points to the difficulty of imagining any famine in which bigger transfers of purchasing power from the rich to the poor would not reduce mortality.

The Demographic Impact

Because famines have nearly always affected backward economies, their human toll is often difficult to measure. In the absence of civil registration, as in Ireland in the nineteenth century and in the Ukraine and China in the twentieth, the highest and lowest estimates of mortality sometimes are set by ideologues. Estimates of excess mortality in the Ukraine in the 1931–1932 famine range from 2 million to 8 million, whereas those of deaths from the Chinese Great Leap Forward famine range from 15 million to 43 million. Claims that the Great Leap famine was the largest in history gloss over uncertainties about its true toll and ignore estimates of 20 million to 30 million deaths from famine in China between 1876 and 1900 and a further 12 million to 20 million in India in the same period.

Alhough as many as 70 million people died of famine during the twentieth century, in relative terms famine-related mortality was lower than it had been in previous centuries. In Europe the retreat of famine has been a long process. Famine has not been a significant factor demographically in England since the sixteenth century or in France since the early eighteenth century, but much of Europe was subjected to famine in 1740–1741 and 1817–1819. In Ireland the famine of 1740–1741 killed proportionately more people than did the more famous potato famine of the 1840s. Europe's last major subsistence crisis was the Finnish famine of 1868.

In the twenty-first century, for the first time in history, only pockets of the globe, such as parts of Africa, Afghanistan, and North Korea, remain truly vulnerable to the threat of famine. For all the publicity attending modern famines (useful from a humanitarian aid standpoint), their demographic impact is minor. Although it would be naive to rule out more "political" famines in the future, there is little likelihood of population outstripping global food-producing capacity in the next generation or two.

Famines that kill more than a few percent of a country's population are unusual. Exceptions include the "haze famine" that killed one-fourth of Iceland's population in the wake of the eruption of Laki in June 1783 and the famine that killed the same proportion of the population of Cape Verde in the mid-1850s. However, those famines occurred in very small places. The Chinese famine of 1958–1960, so atrocious in absolute terms, killed at most 2 to 3 percent of the total population of China.

Throughout history most famine victims succumbed not to literal starvation but to infectious diseases. In Ireland in the 1840s, for example, only about one victim in ten died of starvation, broadly defined. Suppression of the immune system from malnutrition increased vulnerability to infectious diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery/diarrhea. Other deaths were attributable to a wide range of partially hunger-sensitive diseases. Famines kill the very young and the very old disproportionately, but those groups are also the most vulnerable in normal times. Women tend to be better at resisting malnutrition, mainly for physiological reasons. Births decline as a result of reductions in sexual activity and in women's capacity to bear children. When the worst of the crisis is over, deaths typically fall below trend for a year or two and births rise above it. This raises the conundrum of whether estimates of the demographic toll of famines that include averted births during famines should also include deaths averted and births induced in its wake. Migration may exacerbate famine by spreading infection (as in Finland in 1868); alternatively, it may act as a form of disaster relief by reducing the pressure on resources, as occurred in Ireland in the 1840s.

The changing role of medical science in reducing mortality from infectious diseases is an interesting issue. Long before the discoveries of the scientists Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur the risks associated with being near fever victims were well understood, though the mechanisms of contamination were not. Moreover, there was a long lag between scientific diagnosis and remedies such as penicillin and electrolytes. In the twentieth century there have been famines in which infectious diseases were the main killers (e.g., Bengal in the 1940s and Ethiopia in the 1970s) and famines in which they killed few people (e.g., Mykonos in 1942–1943 and the western Netherlands during the Hongerwinter of 1944–1945). The key seems to be whether infectious diseases are endemic in normal times: If they are, they bulk large when famine strikes.

Public Action

When threatened with famine, in the past the poor relied on compassion on the part of the ruling class and the fear of infection and social unrest. Rarely have such sentiments been enough. In the ancient world capital cities tended to be the best organized for famine relief. Christian ideology may have helped marginally because it called for the rich to be charitable. Although Malthus denied the right of the hungry citizen to subsistence, rulers have long implicitly acknowledged a responsibility to help. They employed a variety of strategies: the maintenance of public granaries, institutionalized care through poor laws, workfare, improvised soup kitchens, and migration schemes. Private charity has rarely been enough in times of severe harvest failure. The record suggests that particularly when a crisis persists, compassion fatigue sets in. In the twenty-first century international relief, both governmental and nongovernmental, supplements local efforts, but with the attendant danger that it shifts responsibility from local elites and oligarchs.

For those early disciples of Malthus who regarded famines as a providential response to overpopulation, public intervention risked leading to even worse famines later. In Ireland and in the Netherlands in the 1840s as in India in the late 1870s there was thus a tension between Malthusian ideology and measures that would minimize mortality. In practice public action was, and still is, often complicated by the problem of agency. Antisocial behavior is an inevitable concomitant of famine: Theft increases, and hospitality diminishes.

Informal systems of mutual help may work at first, but their effectiveness does not last. Concern with cheating is a prominent aspect of controversies about relief policy. The Irish experience in the 1840s is illustrative in this respect. Relief through a system of workfare was initially seen as the best way around such problems, but this was ill geared to help the physically weak and exacerbated the spread of infectious diseases. When it was replaced by food aid, the food was distributed in a non-resalable form in order to minimize abuse. Once the authorities deemed the crisis over, the onus shifted back to reliance on the workhouses established under the Irish poor law of 1838. In Ireland as elsewhere, worries about free riders ended up hurting the vulnerable. The choice between public works schemes and soup kitchens is still a matter of debate.

Post-Famine Adjustment

Malthus saw famine as a harsh remedy that "with one mighty blow level[ed] the population with the food of the world." There is no doubt that in the short run at least famines result in higher living standards for the majority of survivors. To the extent that famines reduce the population but leave largely intact the land endowment and physical capital, famines improve the lot of surviving workers relative to farmers and landowners. The impact on landowners may be intensified by the burden of relief spending. However, if the chaotic conditions that often precede famines prevent landowners from enforcing their property rights, they too may find their incomes rising once normality has been restored.

But are these "benefits" lasting? One consideration is that the gains in terms of higher wages and a higher land–labor ratio may be offset by the long-run impact of famine on the health of affected survivors. Another consideration is whether population growth tends to fill the demographic vacuum left by famine. Good examples are Finland in 1868 and France in the 1690s and 1700s, where the demographic dents made by major famines were repaired within a few years. The evidence is not unanimous, though: In pre–Black Death England in the wake of the agrarian crisis of the 1310s, in post-famine Ireland, and in Tokugawa Japan the demographic damage done by famine persisted. In Ireland the lack of a demographic "rebound" was due at least in part to an increasing resort to the preventive check through later and fewer marriages.

See also: Food Supply and Population; Nutrition and Calorie Consumption.


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Cormac Ó GrÁda

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