Rapporteur: Marianne Larsen
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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]
Famine and epidemic disease
When there is a severe lack of food many people will die of starvation, but between starvation and death there is nearly always disease. When people don’t have enough food to eat, acute malnutrition sets in and weakens the immune system (World Health Organization, 2018).
Disease cannot be said to cause famine, but it is often linked to famine given victims’ increased susceptibility to disease. The Irish famine (1845-1850) is a case in point where general starvation and disease were responsible for more than 1,000,000 excess deaths, most of them attributable to fever, dysentery and smallpox (Woodham-Smith, 1962).
Geography of famine
Almost every inhabited continent in the world has experienced a period of famine throughout its history. The geography of modern famine is overwhelmingly a story of Asia and eastern Europe, which account for 87% of famine deaths in the period. Approximately half of these (56.5 million) were in East and South-east Asia. South Asia accounted for 16.5 million deaths. Europe including the USSR accounted for 18.17 million famine related deaths. African famine deaths during the entire period are estimated at 9% of the total ( 9.575 million deaths), with the majority occurring in the late nineteenth century in Congo and north-east Africa. Latin America counted about 1.5 million famine deaths, all in Brazil in the nineteenth century. The Middle East has an estimated 2.07 million deaths, most associated with World War One and the Armenian genocide (World Peace Foundation, 2015).
History of Famine
The history of great famines can be classified into 4 broad periods:
Since 1870, famine and episodes of forcible mass starvation have killed 104.3 million people. The main trend, however, is downwards. In each decade between the 1870s and the 1970s, great famines (those that kill more than 100,000 people) killed between 1.45 million and 16.64 million, at an average of about 927,810 per year. Since 1980, the annual death toll in great famines has averaged 75,217, or about 8 per cent of the historic level (World Peace Foundation, 2015).
Famine in the 21st Century
In terms of recent history “famines in peacetime are no longer the looming threat they have been throughout history. “In peacetime” is the crucial qualifier. The globalization of disaster relief and increasing global food output are responsible for this (Ó Gráda, 2015,p. 8).
In the 21st century, calamitous famines—those causing more than 1 million deaths— have been eliminated. Until recently, great famines have been more common. Deaths from these famines exceeded 15 million in five separate decades in the 20th century. In the 21st century, the death toll from great famines is near 600,000, still cause for concern, although relatively low by historical standards (von Grebmer et al, 2015, p. 5). There are a few exceptions, such as Somalia in 2011–12. Nowadays the closest countries outside parts of sub-Saharan Africa come to famine is what the Food and Agricultural Organization dubs “severe localized food insecurity,” and that hardly ever culminates in famine (Ó Gráda, 2015).
Ethiopia (1983-85)- experienced multiple, simultaneous civil wars between 1974 and 1991, along with severe famines during this period, including the worst famine in current history between 1983 and 1985 (Africa Watch 1991; von Braun & Olofinbiyi 2007).
South Sudan The famine in South Sudan is ‘man-made’, and here we see a clear link between famine and lack of democracy. South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, and since then it has been plagued by civil war. All involved in the conflict are parties to the famine. A localized famine was declared for Leer and Mayendit [counties] on 20 February 2017, an area where violence and insecurity have compromised humanitarian access for years. More than one million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished across the country; including 270,000 children who face the imminent risk of death should they not be reached in time with assistance (O’Brien, 2017).
Yemen The current famine in Yemen has been caused by the Saudi-Arabian led intervention in Yemen and the blockage imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies. According to an October 2018 article by the United Nations, around 14 million people or half of the population of Yemen is at risk of famine. At the end of 2017, 130 children were dying every day from extreme hunger and disease (United Nations, 2018a)
Given the political nature of famine, as outlined above, political institutions can and have played a role in preventing famine. Sen (1981) has shown how liberal institutions in India, including competitive elections and a free press, have played a major role in preventing famine there since independence.
Anti-famine political contract (de Waal, 2000)
The theory of the ‘political contract’ focuses on the contract between rulers and people that ensures famine prevention. Effective political action against famine requires more than just democracy, but the active mobilization of people (e.g. through the US civil rights movement) and specialist institutions to promote human rights (e.g. Human Rights Watch). Famine must be made an issue of political concern even when there is no famine. Complex interventions need to take place in advance to prevent famines. Coalition-building is essential to creating anti-famine politics, especially in terms of fighting famine with other goals. Mobilization against famine therefore has a set of interconnected goals and these are what de Waal (2000) calls a ‘political contract’ against famine:
De Waal (2018) in his recent book entitled Mass Starvation has called for the criminalization of starvation. Starvation should be designated a crime and prohibited worldwide. While there are already enough international laws to prohibit and prosecute action leading to famine, those same laws do not explicitly name starvation and famine as crimes. This is why de Waal (2018) used the term ‘famine crimes’ and calls for activists around the world to take up the cause of criminalizing starvation.
United Nations Development Program: Sustainable Development Goals [related to hunger, food security and famine]
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) signal a renewed commitment to end hunger and global poverty by 2030. While Goal 2: Zero Hunger most explicitly addresses issues concerning famine, other relevant goals to be met by 2030 that are required to prevent famine are listed here. Particular attention is drawn to goal 16 given the above-noted political responses that are required to prevent famine (United Nations Development Program, 2018).
References for this article can be seen at the Footnotes 3 page on this website (link will open in a new page).
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