Rapporteur: Marianne Larsen
Hunger and Famine
Project Save the World addresses six global threats that may each sharply break from the routine challenges of human experience, with quick catastrophic effects. We do not focus on chronic or intermittent problems that are not existential challenges to humankind or our civilization. Thus, we address famine but not “food insecurity,” or ordinary “hunger” — the shortage of nutrients that have frequently been experienced, probably by the majority of human beings throughout history. However, we recognize that it would be wrong and foolish to ignore “normal” hunger, so our Platform for Survival mentions it briefly in this plank, especially in connection with the current campaign by the United Nations to promote the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Accordingly, we should at least touch upon the challenge feeding the human population in the decades ahead before turning to famine as the main topic of this article.
The human population may reach a maximum size of around eleven billion by the end of this century. Already we number 7.3 billion, and therefore we must prepare for about a 65 percent increase in food production. Is this possible? Probably so, though many things — most obviously the climate — can interfere. There is already far more food per capita available on the planet today than would be needed if it were divided equally among the whole human population. Production has kept ahead of population growth and can continue doing so; that is not the main problem.
But while some populations consume more than their fair share of the world’s food (indeed, more than is good for them) there are billions who consume too little already. About thirty percent of all food is wasted — thrown away without being consumed. The poor have too little food, and what they eat usually is not the optimum combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Most people now buy their food instead of producing it themselves, so their intake is affected greatly by the price. Yet lately the price of food is not determined by the relationship between supply and demand, as ordinary economic theory would predict. It has been much more affected by the world price of oil! The production and distribution of food depends largely on machinery and chemicals, which in turn are affected by the price of oil.
There is also the growing influence of the climate. Global warming is not the cause of famine, as we shall see below, but it is increasingly determining overall food production. When Russia’s wheat crop failed a few years ago, the country stopped all its exports of grain for the year, which greatly increased the world price of food and led to civil unrest in many countries, most notably in the Middle East, where most food is imported. The Arab Spring was one outcome. Global politics is a stronger factor in determining hunger now than the conventional factors: supply and demand.
Nevertheless, it is probable that sufficient food can be produced to feed the maximum human population that must be expected. However, there are four great challenges to be addressed:
1. How will we produce that food? Are the methods sustainable? (See plank 14.)
2. Who will get the food? Is the allocation of food equitable? Will some remain hungry while other food is wasted?
3. What kind of food will be produced and distributed? How must our dietary habits change?
4. How will we allocate the energy necessary to produce the food and how will we distribute it equitably and without waste?
All of these questions are addressed to some extent by other planks in the Platform. The remainder of this article, however, will address a very specific type of food deprivation event: famine.
Definition of Famine
Like most complex social phenomena, definitions (and related causes and solutions) of famine are contested. Moreover, many cases diagnosed as ‘famine’ do not meet textbook definitions, which are often subjective, used loosely, and/or not be transferable from one community to the next (de Waal, 2000). One useful definition breaks famine down into its constituent parts:
- Hunger including subjective feelings of severe and prolonged hunger, going without acceptable food and the measurable fact of undernutrition.
- Impoverishment including the loss of livelihood, income and assets and other components of increased poverty.
- Social breakdown including distress migration, family and community breakdown.
- Mortality rates are increased and usually concentrated among vulnerable groups such as children, women, migrants, etc.
- Social and economic responses/resistance of individuals, families and groups to each of the above (de Waal, 2000).
Famine, it must be noted, can occur without all of these components being present.
A number of different classification systems used to determine when a famine is present. One of the most widely used has been developed by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) 1) According to the IPC, the international standard for classifying food insecurity and malnutrition, a famine can be declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. These measures are:
- at least 20 per cent of households in an area face a complete lack of food and/or other basic needs
- acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent, and
- the mortality rate exceeds two persons/day/10,000 persons.
According to this definition, areas are declared to be in famine only when substantial deaths have occurred due to lack of food consumption on its own or by its interaction with disease. By classifying famine as “situations where mass deaths have already taken place due to starvation, the IPC Famine area classification is only applied to a situation that is the outcome of a sequential and causal series of events between severe food deficits, acute malnutrition and the final expression of deaths” (IPC, 2016, p. 2).
Other definitions of famine challenge the idea that famine is a discrete event triggered by food shortage resulting in mass deaths by starvation. For example, Devereux (2000) notes that mass starvation and deaths is only one possible outcome of famine and that we need to consider other outcomes such as fertility decline, economic destitution, community breakdown, distress migration and exposure to new diseases. Thus, famines could be declared even without widespread deaths, allowing situations where extreme food gaps, displacement, and total collapse of livelihoods and high acute malnutrition to be considered famine.
Different Types of Famines
While the above would suggest that famine is a category on its own and can only be declared when particular criteria are met, others have proposed different categories/types of famine.
Famines last different amounts of time. The Somalia famine in 2011–12 and the Dutch Hongerwinter famine of 1944–45 only lasted a few months. In the cases of Ireland in the late 1840s, and China in 1959–61, famines lasted a few years.
Famines can be distinguished according to the degree of severity, which is usually measured by the number of deaths. Devereux (2000) distinguishes between ‘great famines’ (100,000 or more excess deaths) and ‘catastrophic famines’ (one million or more excess deaths. De Waal (2000) identifies three degrees of famine severity:
- Famines involving primarily hunger and impoverishment
- Famines in which there are elevated rates of mortality
- Famines in which there are spectacularly high death rates alongside severe social dislocation and collapse (p. 7)
Causes of Famine
Given the contested and complex nature of famine, as well as different types of famine, there are different explanations for what causes famine. Some of these are outlined in the chart above and some outlined in this section here.
a) Famine and democracy
The conventional explanation to explain the cause of famines was the food availability decline hypothesis. The assumption was that the central cause of all famines was a decline in the supply of food. In contrast to this argument, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (1981, 1983) claims that a lack of democracy and famines are interrelated. Sen argues that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country. In his book, Poverty and Famine, Sen uses the example of the 1944 Bengal famine to show that it occurred due to a lack of democracy in India under British rule aggravated by the colonial government’s suspension of trade in rice and grains among various Indian provinces. More recently, Ó Gráda (2015) has shown that the primary cause of the Bengal famine was the unwillingness of colonial rulers to divert food from their war effort.
According to Sen, entitlements are the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and opportunities that s/he faces. Famine occurs when food entitlements decline (FED). In Poverty and Famines, Sen connects famine to people’s lack of entitlements rather than to, for instance, food shortages or ecological disasters. For example, when market incomes fall in relation to the price of subsistence foods, food becomes not physically unavailable, but unaffordable.
Others have critiqued the assertion that famines cannot occur in democratic states. For example, De Waal (2000) points out some of the limitations of Sen’s hypothesis that there can be no famine in democracies noting that the reality is much more complex. He notes the following examples where famines have occurred in democratic states where liberal institutions failed to prevent the famine:
- Ireland (1845-9)
- Bihar, India (1966-67)
- Bangladesh (1974)
- Sudan (1986-88)
De Waal (2000) explains that while civil rights and free speech under democracies have the potential to contribute to social and economic rights, including the right to food, history has shown us that the “gross abuses of social, economic and cultural rights can exist in democracies”
b) State-sponsored famines
Famine has also occurred due to government policies. Here are two examples:
i) The Chinese Great Leap Famine (1959–61) . In 1958, Mao Zedong’s Communist Government launched the Great Leap Forward campaign, aimed at rapidly industrializing the country. The government forcibly took control of agriculture. Barely enough grain was left for the peasants, and starvation occurred in many rural areas. Exportation of grain continued despite the famine and the government attempted to conceal it. While the famine is attributed to unintended consequences, it is believed that the government refused to acknowledge the problem, thereby further contributing to the deaths. In many instances, peasants were persecuted. Between 20 and 45 million people perished in this famine, making it one the greatest modern famine ever in terms of lives lost (Thaxton, 2008).
ii) The Holodomor – Soviet famine (1932–1933) . In 1932, under the rule of the USSR, Ukraine experienced one of its largest famines. Between 2.4 and 7.5 million peasants died as a result of a state sponsored famine. It was termed the Holodomor as it was a deliberate campaign of repression designed to eliminate resistance to the government’s forced collectivization of agriculture. Forced grain quotas imposed upon the rural peasants and a brutal reign of terror contributed to the widespread famine. The Soviet government continued to deny the problem and it did not provide aid to the victims nor did it accept foreign aid (Tauger, 2001).
c) Famine and war
War and famine, two fearsome horsemen, have long ridden side by side. Armed conflict disrupts food systems, destroys livelihoods, displaces people, and leaves those who do not flee both terrified and unsure when they will eat their next meal (de Waal, 2015, p. 23).
Nearly half of all famines between 1870-2010 occurred during active armed conflict. Over one-quarter of all famines took place during conditions of active political repression, and 3.28% of famines occurred in countries emerging from conflict. Only one-fifth of famines occurred in countries with no conflict or political repression (World Peace Foundation, 2015).
d) Famine and climate change
Global climate change has challenged the Earth’s ability to produce food, causing food production fluctuations and shortfalls, potentially leading to famine (Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2013). We see this currently in Somalia where climate change has played a significant role in famine there. [De Waal 2018 takes issue with the contention that global warming currently causes famine]