Famine: A Short History

Review of Famine: A Short History, by Cormac O Grada (Princeton University Press, 2009)

For hundreds of years, would-be prophets have warned of that the human population would grow beyond our capacity to feed ourselves. Thomas Malthus, writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, predicted that regular famines would result as human populations exceeded the supply of food.  In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions of people would die in a global famine in the 1970s unless the rise in human population was somehow reversed.

Cover of Famine: A Short History by Cormac Ó Gráda
Cover of Famine: A Short History by Cormac Ó Gráda.

In Famine: A Short History, Cormac Ó Gráda, a professor of economics at University College Dublin and the author of Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (Princeton, 1999) and dozens of articles and papers on the links between markets and famines in Ireland and around the world, demonstrates why the apocalyptic visions of Malthus, Ehrlich, and other doomsayers have not come to pass. 

Drawing on a rich variety of government documents from numerous countries, reports from non-governmental organizations, anthropological and archaeological studies, medical histories, philosophical writings, oral histories, and even some folklore, Ó Gráda argues that most famines in human history result more from human action – or inaction – than from the failure of natural resources to keep pace with humanity. 

Ó Gráda demonstrates that famine often travels in war's wake, either as an instrument of war or as a result of a wartime reallocation of resources.  Conversely, he points out, the most dramatic famines of the modern era also result from peacetime policies that favor rapid industrialization over agricultural production, with deadly results. 

Famine deaths are caused by malnutrition and, until the twentieth century, infectious diseases that develop and spread in famine-stricken areas.  As Ó Gráda  notes, it is difficult to determine the number of deaths due to any particular famine because of incomplete records and because death tolls are often politically controversial. 

We can arrive at some general conclusions about famine mortality from the sketchy existing sources, however.  Famines usually hit the poorest members of a group the hardest, through malnutrition and disease, though wealthier folks often suffer from the same diseases.  Men suffer more than women; the very young and the very old suffer disproportionately because of their inability to care for themselves and because of deliberate human decisions that favored "fitter" groups. 

Beyond the excess mortality from malnutrition and disease, famines have broader effects on a society, including increased prostitution, infanticide and child abandonment, increased criminal activity during the early stages of famine (until victims become too weak to commit crimes), widespread attempts among desperate people to sell themselves or family members into slavery just when slaveowners are trying to get rid of hungry slaves, and possibly cannibalism. 

In response to famine, human beings have devised a number of coping mechanisms. Many people took advantage of extended family networks, crop diversification, and overproduction in good years, but during bad years, as the normal crops failed, they had to rely on "famine foods": edible but unappetizing fruits, vegetables, seeds, leaves, pods, and shoots.  When food was available but expensive, people often purchased food on credit, which provided a short-term defense against hunger but also led to debt problems after the famine had passed.  Migration was the most effective coping mechanism and functioned as a safety valve, reducing pressure on resources in critical areas. 

Attempts to relieve famine have come from a variety of public and private sources.  Elites have historically felt a moral obligation to help the less fortunate during crises through philanthropy, though this has often been driven by fear of uprising from below or fear of infectious diseases.  Governments have provided relief through public granaries, price controls, the equivalent of soup kitchens, institutionalization of the poor in workhouses, and subsidized migration.  Religious institutions often engaged in triage, distinguishing between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, and focusing on the neediest people. 

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the development of non-governmental relief organizations that started out targeting specific trouble spots but grew into full-time bureaucracies.  Finally, in the twentieth century, the United States led the way in providing state aid to other countries for famine relief, including Venezuela in 1912, the Soviet Union in 1921, and Western Europe after World War II, though this aid often came with strings attached.

Although the book deals with a grim subject, Ó Gráda's history of famine is surprisingly optimistic.  The number of famines fell dramatically during the twentieth century because of falling transportation costs, faster communication technologies, better understanding of nutrition and medicine, the growing number of international famine relief organizations, falling food storage costs, the proliferation of cheap, storable, transportable, nutrient-dense foods, and the expansion of democracy around the world, which holds governments accountable for policy failures.  Ó Gráda believes that this trend will continue into the future.  Global food production has increased by one-third since the early 1960s and is outpacing human population growth, and the portion of the labor force that is dependent on agriculture or subsistence farming has fallen dramatically since the 1950s. 

We have not seen an end to famine, however.  Famines continue to occur, albeit with less intensity than in the past, in economically backward and war-torn regions.  Totalitarian regimes, that often favor economic or industrial development at the expense of food production, still exist.  Climate change will introduce the most unpredictable variable in global food production, as some areas will become more arid but others will see increased rainfall and soil fertility.  These will be among the most pressing challenges in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Famine: A Short History is organized thematically and analytically, which makes sense given the large number of famines that have occurred across the globe.  Ó Gráda uses famines ranging from the third millennium BC to the present in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Korea, Russia, Ireland, Western Europe, Ethiopia, South Africa, and the New World, among countless others, to support his analytical points.  In his quest to manage the size of the book, however, Ó Gráda forgoes narrative explanations for those crises, which reduces each famine to a cold statistic.  The author provides historical context to only three famines: Bengal (1943-44), the Soviet Union (1921-22, 1932-33, 1941-43), and China (1959-61).  These three examples support the author's argument that famines in the modern era are the result more of human action than nature, but historians will look in vain for analyses of specific famines in earlier eras.

On the other hand, the lack of narration allows Ó Gráda to analyze a very broad array of topics, and the book can serve as a valuable starting point for further reading.  His ample bibliography points readers to books or articles on specific famines.  Most importantly, like all good syntheses, Famine: A Short History provides a skeleton or framework for studying famine in general, and it leaves plenty of room for further research on individual famines.

For further information:

Ó Gráda provides a brief summary of Famine: A Short History here.

A list of Ó Gráda's works, with many downloadable articles and working papers, is available here

Mark Lynch's "Inquiry" interview of Ó Gráda on WICN Public Radio, available for download here.