Famine Research Paper

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Famine is a complex social phenomenon and is distinguished from starvation by its social aspect. Individuals starve to death as a result of reductions in food supply, but societies experience a more complex response. Not all members of society suffer equally from food shortages. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, the poorer and less privileged sections of society, whose entitlements to food are least secure, suffer more than the richer, more privileged sections. The history of famine is not simply a history of factors that cause a reduction in food supply, or of the imbalance of food production against population growth. It includes the history of social and political responses to these problems, the history of social formations, and the history of social differentiation concerning food entitlement. While there has traditionally been a classification between natural and politically induced famines, the distinction does not really hold. Every famine that develops to take on significant mortality consequences indicates a failure of famine avoidance and relief measures. Most famines have had multiple causes.

All previous social formations have experienced food shortages and famines. It is only in relatively recent times that agricultural development has progressed to such an extent as to enable sufficient food stocks to be accumulated to pose the possibility of the eradication of world famines. The fact that famines do still occur is no longer a consequence of there being insufficient food, but of political and social problems including those associated with local distribution.

Famine in Early Social Formations

At earlier times there had not been a progressive move toward the eradication of hunger. The shift from hunter-gatherer to settled farmer societies was not associated with improved nutrition. The anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen has assembled anthropometric data that indicates that early settled society was more vulnerable to food shortages, and he argues that starvation from this time may have been associated with political and economic issues more than with agricultural events. There is evidence in the earliest civilizations in Egypt, China, India, the Middle East, and classical Europe of considerable concern over food supplies and the establishment of large state granaries and famine relief and transportation systems.

In China the granary system dates back to antiquity and the tribute system was well developed before the Grand Canal was opened in 611 CE linking the Huang (Yellow) River in the north with the Yangzi (Chang) in the south. Part of this supply system was destroyed by the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, and imperial food supply problems were complicated when first Khubilai Khan and then the Ming emperors established the capital at Beijing in the north rather than in the Huang River basin at Xi’an (Chang’an) or Luoyang, or at Nanjing on the Yangzi. In 1325 there was a massive famine that is claimed to have killed between 4 and 8 million people. Faced with this challenge, the rulers revived the tribute system, granaries, and famine relief work and developed them to a new level. In the great drought of 1740–1743, at a time when the European subsistence crises were still causing a substantial number of deaths, the scale of Chinese famine relief was enormous and mass mortality was largely avoided. By the early part of the nineteenth century about 400,000 tons of grain a year were transported through the tribute system to feed the northern garrisons and a Beijing population of 800,000. Although the granary system began to decline from the time of the White Lotus Rebellion at the end of the eighteenth century, transport on the Grand Canal probably peaked in the first half of the nineteenth century, on the eve of the First Opium War (1839–1842), before the British cut this vital supply link and plunged the country into turmoil and a period of famine and rebellion.

There is some dispute as to how efficient the Chinese Empire was in the period before the troubles of the nineteenth century. Modern scholars argue that living standards were much higher than in Europe until the time of modern imperial troubles.

India under the Mughals had also developed successful ways of dealing with famines before the British advance into India following Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. It was under British rule that economic growth slowed below the rate of population growth and per capita living standards fell to dangerous levels. There were few signs of major famine in India before the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 under the administration of the East India Company.

As the classical urban population of the south of Europe grew in size, more grain had to be imported into these regions and the authorities became increasingly concerned about establishing granaries and other food support systems. Governments provided support to assist the transportation of grain into the major cities. Famines would occur when there was a breakdown in these supplies.

The European population then spread to the colder less hospitable areas to the north, where, given the technology of the time, the population was more vulnerable to the influence of the weather. The greatest recorded European famine was experienced in northern Europe from 1315 to 1322. Modern scholarship tends to question the Postan thesis, which presumed the existence of overcropping and soil exhaustion throughout a very large area of northern Europe. The exceptional damp weather for a number of years appears to have been the main factor. The result was massive social disturbance, food deprivation, and high mortality levels. The weakening of this generation may have contributed to the continued massive population losses from the Black Death a few decades later. Together the sharp population losses of these years appear to have caused a change in the relative values of land and labor, which probably contributed to the weakening of feudal relations and the growth of more commercial ones.

Subsequently European famines have never been so severe, although periodic subsistence crises would produce smaller-scale famines periodically down to the eighteenth century in many areas. The last of these great peacetime subsistence crises in the northern and central regions of Europe occurred in the early 1740s. The situation was worse in the extremities of Europe with major famines in Finland in 1696–1697, in Ireland in the 1840s, and in Russia in 1871, 1891, and into the twentieth century. The rest of the world experienced similar problems, but with the period of subsistence crises lasting much later, and with larger amounts of disruption to the traditional supply systems as a result of wars and colonial expansion.

Western colonialism is no longer seen as a benign process of modernizing the uncivilized world. There is a growing realization of the costs of the destruction of the local domestic economy and of the traditional coping practices, which made it difficult for these societies to respond adequately to the serious natural and political challenges that they faced at this time. The serious famines of the 1880s and 1890s in India, China, South America, and Egypt are presented rather provocatively as “Victorian Holocausts” (Davis 2001) in which colonial administrators hindered the local government from responding to the challenges in the El Nino Southern Oscillation.

Twentieth-Century Famines

During the two major world wars of the twentieth century, both sides attempted to disrupt their enemies’ food supply channels and to cause famine and social disruption. The rationing and food securing operations of the main developed countries largely succeeded in avoiding this outcome. In several of the poorer countries in central and Eastern Europe and Asia, however, there were very serious consequences. Americans provided large amounts of food and famine relief to Belgium throughout World War I and to large areas in central and Eastern Europe and Russia after both of these wars. This did largely contain the crisis in these areas. There was, however, a major famine in Russia in 1921–1922, which was partly related to the continuation of civil war following World War I and the revolution. During World War II there was a famine in the occupied Greek islands, in the Netherlands after the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and throughout the war in occupied and besieged parts of Eastern Europe and Russia. The famine in blockaded Leningrad is perhaps the best-known case.

In Asia World War II contributed to serious famines in China (1937–1945), India (Bengal, 1943), and Vietnam (1942–1944). In subsequent years famines have often accompanied minor military engagements between poorer countries.

There has been much controversy over the relationship between famine and Communism. While it is true that the three major famines of the twentieth century (USSR 1921–1922 with 3 million deaths, USSR 1930–1933 with 6 million deaths, and China 1958–1961 with 15–20 million deaths) all occurred in Communist countries, it is somewhat superficial to blame these famines on Communism per se. Both Russia and China had frequently suffered from famines before they became Communist, and in both countries the Communist revolution had taken place during and following a period of major economic collapse that had been associated with major famines. In China this was the extended period of troubles from the 1850s to 1948; in Russia it was a shorter period, from 1917 to 1922. During these troubled periods the major cities experienced extensive famines as the state structure weakened and the traditional supply system broke down. The successor revolutionary states that were born out of these troubled times were anxious to develop the economy and rebuild supply structures.

In the railway and industrial age there appeared to be great prospects for these states, which both experienced remarkable growth in the first decades of their revolution. In both cases the second decade brought about excessively ambitious plans to escape from the poverty trap, which in combination with unexpected poor weather led to the onset of a series of factors that resulted in the largest famines of the twentieth century. Attempts were made by both regimes to conceal these “Great Leap” famines and to deny their existence. It was only years later that the true scale of these disasters became apparent.

Despite these early Communist disasters, the USSR and China did develop their economies and industrialized to a certain extent. They have proved to be no match for the advanced Western economies, but their experience in central planning was for a while highly popular in the newly independent former colonies, which were also looking for a way of industrializing in a hurry. It is the underdeveloped world that has failed to industrialize that continues to experience famine, especially in sub-Sahelian Africa.

There are some scholars who claim that the Great Irish Famine of 1841–1845 and the Russian famine of 1931–1933 were both cases of genocide in which a major colonial power, Britain or Russia, attempted to weaken and control a troublesome region. Although in both cases the colonial power can be accused of acting insufficiently vigorously to reduce the famine, there is little evidence to support the case that these famines were caused on purpose.

Famine and Disease

Before the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries famine had always been associated with major epidemic diseases, often typhus. Relatively few people had died from starvation, because other epidemic diseases killed them first. This applied to the Great Irish Famine of 1847, the Russian Famine of 1921–1922, and the Bengal Famine of 1943. But epidemic diseases have played a less important role in subsequent famines and especially in the Soviet Famine of 1931–1933 and the Chinese Famine of the Great Leap Forward, 1958–1961. We are now in a new age of famine demography in which simple medical and sanitary intervention can greatly reduce the likelihood of death from disease. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in an absence of great mortality in famines. It has, however, reduced the scale of mortality, which otherwise would have been considerably greater.

Outlook in the Twenty-First Century

The Malthusian threat of population growth outstripping growth in food supplies has failed to be realized in the twentieth century and is unlikely to emerge in the twenty-first century.

The threat of major world wars to cause famines by disturbing major supply channels also failed to emerge in the major countries in the twentieth century, although it has been an important factor in smaller poorer countries. It would be extremely rash to presume that any major conflict in the future would have a similar result. Disruptions in food supplies to the underdeveloped world are unfortunately continuing. Famine will remain a major challenge to the world in the twenty-first century, despite the ability of the world to produce food surpluses.


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