AskDefine | Define famines

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  1. Plural of famine



  1. Plural of famine

Extensive Definition

A famine is a widespread shortage of food that may apply to any faunal species, which phenomenon is usually accompanied by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.
Although most famines coincide with regional shortages of food, famine in some human populations has occurred amid plenty or on account of acts of economic or military policy that have deprived certain populations of sufficient food to ensure survival. Historically, famines have occurred because of drought, crop failure, pestilence, and man-made causes such as war or misguided economic policies. Bad harvests, overpopulation, and epidemic diseases like the Black Death helped cause hundreds of famines in Europe during the Middle Ages, including 95 in the British Isles and 75 in France.
During the 20th century, an estimated 70 million people died from famines across the world, of whom an estimated 30 million died during the famine of 1958–61 in China. The other most notable famines of the century included the 1942–1945 disaster in Bengal, famines in China in 1928 and 1942, and a sequence of famines in the Soviet Union, including the Holodomor, Stalin's famine inflicted on Ukraine in 1932–33. A few of the great famines of the late 20th century were: the Biafran famine in the 1960s, the disaster in Cambodia in the 1970s, the Ethiopian famine of 1983–85 and the North Korean famine of the 1990s.
Famine is typically induced by a human population exceeding the regional carrying capacity to provide food resources. An alternate view of famine is a failure of the poor to command sufficient resources to acquire essential food (the "entitlement theory" of Amartya Sen), analyses of famine that focused on the political-economic processes, an understanding of the reasons for mortality in famines, an appreciation of the extent to which famine-vulnerable communities have strategies for coping with the threat of famine, and the role of warfare and terrorism in creating famine. Modern relief agencies categorize various gradations of famine according to a famine scale.
Many areas that suffered famines in the past have protected themselves through technological and social development. The first area in Europe to eliminate famine was the Netherlands, which saw its last peacetime famines in the early 17th century as it became a major economic power and established a complex economic organization. Noting that many famines occur under dictatorship, colonial rule, or during war, Amartya Sen has posited that no functioning democracy has suffered a famine in modern times.

Characteristics of famine

Famine strikes Sub-Saharan African countries the hardest, but with exhaustion of food resources, overdrafting of groundwater, wars, internal struggles, and economic failure, famine continues to be a worldwide problem with millions of individuals suffering. These famines cause widespread malnutrition and impoverishment; The famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s had an immense death toll, although Asian famines of the 20th century have also produced extensive death tolls. Modern African famines are characterized by widespread destitution and malnutrition, with heightened mortality confined to young children. Relief technologies including immunization, improved public health infrastructure, general food rations and supplementary feeding for vulnerable children, has blunted the mortality impacts of famines, while leaving their economic consequences unchanged. Humanitarian crises also arise from civil wars, refugee flows and episodes of extreme violence and state collapse, creating famine conditions among the affected populations.
Despite repeated stated intentions by the world's leaders to end hunger and famine, famine remains a chronic threat in much of Africa and Asia. In July 2005, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network labelled Niger with emergency status, as well as Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe. In January 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia were in danger of starvation due to the combination of severe drought and military conflicts. In 2006, the most serious humanitarian crisis in Africa is in Sudan's region Darfur.
Some believe that the Green Revolution was an answer to famine in the 1970s and 1980s. The Green Revolution began in the 20th century with hybrid strains of high-yielding crops. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. Some criticize the process, stating that these new high-yielding crops require more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can harm the environment. However, it was an option for developing nations suffering from famine. These high-yielding crops make it technically possible to feed much of the world population. They can be developed to provide enhanced nutrition, and a well-nourished, well-developed population would emerge. Some say that the problems of famine and ill-nourishment are the results of ethical dilemmas over using the technologies we have, as well as cultural and class differences. Furthermore, there are indications that regional food production has peaked in many world sectors, due to certain strategies associated with intensive agriculture such as groundwater overdrafting and overuse of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.
Frances Moore Lappé, later co-founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) argued in Diet for a Small Planet (1971) that vegetarian diets can provide food for larger populations, with the same resources, compared to omnivorous diets.
Noting that modern famines are sometimes the outcome of misguided economic policies, political design to impoverish or marginalize certain populations, or acts of war, political economists have investigated the political conditions under which famine is prevented. Amartya Sen states that the liberal institutions that exist in India, including competitive elections and a free press, have played a major role in preventing famine in that country since independence. Alex de Waal has developed this theory to focus on the "political contract" between rulers and people that ensures famine prevention, noting the rarity of such political contracts in Africa, and the danger that international relief agencies will undermine such contracts through removing the locus of accountability for famines from national governments.

Causes of famine

Traditionally, famines are thought to be caused by a population outgrowing its regional carrying capacity. In this perception, the operative cause of famine is an imbalance of population with respect to food supply. Most famines however, are caused by a combination of political, economic, and biological factors. Famines can be exacerbated or even caused by poor governance or inadequate logistics for food distribution. In some modern cases, it is political strife, poverty, and violence that disrupt the agricultural and food distribution processes. Modern famines have often occurred in nations that, as a whole, were not initially suffering a shortage of food. One of the largest historical famines (proportional to the affected population) was the Great Irish Famine, which began in 1845 and occurred as food was being shipped from Ireland to England because only the English could afford to pay higher prices. The largest famine ever (in absolute terms) was the Chinese famine of 1958–61 that occurred as a result of the Great Leap Forward. Here it was principally government policy that lead first to a decrease in food production and second did not try anything at scale to prevent the famine. In a similar manner, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia was concentrated in the Wollo region, although food was being shipped out of Wollo to the capital city of Addis Ababa where it could command higher prices. In contrast, at the same time that the citizens of the dictatorships of Ethiopia and Sudan had massive famines in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the democracies of Botswana and Zimbabwe avoided them, despite having worse drops in national food production. This was possible through the simple step of creating short-term employment for the worst-affected groups, thus ensuring a minimal amount of income to buy food, for the duration of the localized food disruption and was taken under criticism from opposition political parties and intense media coverage.
The failure of a harvest or the change in conditions, such as drought, can create a situation whereby large numbers of people live where the carrying capacity of the land has dropped radically. Famine is often associated with subsistence agriculture, that is, where most farming is aimed at producing enough food energy to survive. The total absence of agriculture in an economically strong area does not cause famine; Arizona and other wealthy regions import the vast majority of their food, since such regions produce sufficient economic goods for trade.
Disasters, whether natural or man-made, have been associated with conditions of famine ever since humankind has been keeping written records. The Torah describes how "seven lean years" consumed the seven fat years, and "plagues of locusts" could eat all of the available food stuffs. War, in particular, was associated with famine, particularly in those times and places where warfare included attacks on land, by burning or salting fields, or on those who tilled the soil.
As observed by the economist Amartya Sen, famine is sometimes a problem of food distribution and poverty. In certain cases, such as the Great Leap Forward, North Korea in the mid-1990s, or Zimbabwe in the early-2000s, famine can be caused as an unintentional result of government policy. Famine is sometimes used as a tool of repressive governments as a means to eliminate opponents, as in the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s. In other cases, such as Somalia, famine is a consequence of civil disorder as food distribution systems break down. Most cases are not simply the result of the excedence of the Earth's carrying capacity.
Approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded. In Africa, if current trends of soil degradation continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa. As of late 2007, increased farming for use in biofuels, along with world oil prices at nearly $100 a barrel, has pushed up the price of grain used to feed poultry and dairy cows and other cattle, causing higher prices of wheat (up 58%), soybean (up 32%), and maize (up 11%) over the year. Food riots have recently taken place in many countries across the world. An epidemic of stem rust on wheat caused by race Ug99 is currently spreading across Africa and into Asia and is causing major concern.
There are a number of ongoing famines caused by overpopulation, loss of arable land, war or political intervention. Beginning in the 20th century, nitrogen fertilizers, new pesticides, desert farming, and other agricultural technologies began to be used as weapons against famine. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. These agricultural technologies temporarily increased crop yields, but there are signs as early as 1995 that not only are these technologies reaching their peak of assistance, but they may now be contributing to the decline of arable land (e.g. persistence of pesticides leading to soil contamination and decline of area available for farming. Developed nations have shared these technologies with developing nations with a famine problem, but there are ethical limits to pushing such technologies on lesser developed countries. This is often attributed to an association of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides with a lack of sustainability. In any case, these technological advances might not be influential in those famines which are the result of war. Similarly so, increased yield may not be helpful with certain distribution problems, especially those arising from political intervention.
David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says study.
The authors of this study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will only begin to impact us after 2020, and will not become critical until 2050. The oncoming peaking of global oil production (and subsequent decline of production), along with the peak of North American natural gas production will very likely precipitate this agricultural crisis much sooner than expected. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before.
Water deficits, which are already spurring heavy grain imports in numerous smaller countries, may soon do the same in larger countries, such as China or India. The water tables are falling in scores of countries (including Northern China, the US, and India) due to widespread overpumping using powerful diesel and electric pumps. Other countries affected include Pakistan, Iran, and Mexico. This will eventually lead to water scarcity and cutbacks in grain harvest. Even with the overpumping of its aquifers, China has developed a grain deficit, contributing to the upward pressure on grain prices. Most of the three billion people projected to be added worldwide by mid-century will be born in countries already experiencing water shortages. After China and India, there is a second tier of smaller countries with large water deficits — Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, and Pakistan. Four of these already import a large share of their grain. Only Pakistan remains marginally self-sufficient. But with a population expanding by 4 million a year, it will also soon turn to the world market for grain.
According to a UN climate report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the principal dry-season water sources of Asia's biggest rivers - Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Yellow - could disappear by 2035 as temperatures rise and human demand rises. Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers. India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by severe droughts in coming decades. In India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people.

Effects of famine

The demographic impacts of famine are sharp. Mortality is concentrated among children and the elderly. A consistent demographic fact is that in all recorded famines, male mortality exceeds female, even in those populations (such as northern India and Pakistan) where there is a normal times male longevity advantage. Reasons for this may include greater female resilience under the pressure of malnutrition, and the fact that women are more skilled at gathering and processing wild foods and other fall-back famine foods. Famine is also accompanied by lower fertility. Famines therefore leave the reproductive core of a population—adult women—lesser affected compared to other population categories, and post-famine periods are often characterized a "rebound" with increased births. Even though the theories of Thomas Malthus would predict that famines reduce the size of the population commensurate with available food resources, in fact even the most severe famines have rarely dented population growth for more than a few years. The mortality in China in 1958–61, Bengal in 1943, and Ethiopia in 1983–85 was all made up by a growing population over just a few years. Of greater long-term demographic impact is emigration: Ireland was chiefly depopulated after the 1840s famines by waves of emigration.

Levels of food insecurity

In modern times, governments and non-governmental organizations that deliver famine relief have limited resources with which to address the multiple situations of food insecurity that are occurring simultaneously. Various methods of categorizing the gradations of food security have thus been used in order to most efficiently allocate food relief. One of the earliest were the Indian Famine Codes devised by the British in the 1880s. The Codes listed three stages of food insecurity: near-scarcity, scarcity and famine, and were highly influential in the creation of subsequent famine warning or measurement systems. The early warning system developed to monitor the region inhabited by the Turkana people in northern Kenya also has three levels, but links each stage to a pre-planned response to mitigate the crisis and prevent its deterioration.
The experiences of famine relief organizations throughout the world over the 1980s and 1990s resulted in at least two major developments: the "livelihoods approach" and the increased use of nutrition indicators to determine the severity of a crisis. Individuals and groups in food stressful situations will attempt to cope by rationing consumption, finding alternative means to supplement income, etc. before taking desperate measures, such as selling off plots of agricultural land. When all means of self-support are exhausted, the affected population begins to migrate in search of food or fall victim to outright mass starvation. Famine may thus be viewed partially as a social phenomenon, involving markets, the price of food, and social support structures. A second lesson drawn was the increased use of rapid nutrition assessments, in particular of children, to give a quantitative measure of the famine's severity.
Since 2004, many of the most important organizations in famine relief, such as the World Food Programme, Thom Bauermann and the U.S. Agency for International Development chris Scott, have adopted a five-level scale measuring intensity and magnitude. The intensity scale uses both livelihoods' measures and measurements of mortality and child malnutrition to categorize a situation as food secure, food insecure, food crisis, famine, severe famine, and extreme famine. The number of deaths determines the magnitude designation, with under 1000 fatalities defining a "minor famine" and a "catastrophic famine" resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths.

Historical famine, by region

Famine in Africa

In the mid-22nd century BC, a sudden and short-lived climatic change that caused reduced rainfall resulted in several decades of drought in Upper Egypt. The resulting famine and civil strife is believed to have been a major cause of the collapse of the Old Kingdom. An account from the First Intermediate Period states, "All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children." In 1680s, famine extended across the entire Sahel, and in 1738 half the population of Timbuktu died of famine.
Historians of African famine have documented repeated famines in Ethiopia. Possibly the worst episode occurred in 1888 and succeeding years, as the epizootic rinderpest, introduced into Eritrea by infected cattle, spread southwards reaching ultimately as far as South Africa. In Ethiopia it was estimated that as much as 90 percent of the national herd died, rendering rich farmers and herders destitute overnight. This coincided with drought associated with an el Nino oscillation, human epidemics of smallpox, and in several countries, intense war. The great famine that afflicted Ethiopia from 1888 to 1892 cost it roughly one-third of its population. In Sudan the year 1888 is remembered as the worst famine in history, on account of these factors and also the exactions imposed by the Mahdist state. Colonial "pacification" efforts often caused severe famine, as for example with the repression of the Maji Maji revolt in Tanganyika in 1906. The introduction of cash crops such as cotton, and forcible measures to impel farmers to grow these crops, also impoverished the peasantry in many areas, such as northern Nigeria, contributing to greater vulnerability to famine when severe drought struck in 1913.
However, for the middle part of the 20th century, agriculturalists, economists and geographers did not consider Africa to be famine prone (they were much more concerned about Asia). There were notable counter-examples, such as the famine in Rwanda during World War II and the Malawi famine of 1949, but most famines were localized and brief food shortages. The specter of famine recurred only in the early 1970s, when Ethiopia and the west African Sahel suffered drought and famine. The Ethiopian famine of that time was closely linked to the crisis of feudalism in that country, and in due course helped to bring about the downfall of the Emperor Haile Selassie. The Sahelian famine was associated with the slowly growing crisis of pastoralism in Africa, which has seen livestock herding decline as a viable way of life over the last two generations.
Since then, African famines have become more frequent, more widespread and more severe. Many African countries are not self-sufficient in food production, relying on income from cash crops to import food. Agriculture in Africa is susceptible to climatic fluctuations, especially droughts which can reduce the amount of food produced locally. Other agricultural problems include soil infertility, land degradation and erosion, swarms of desert locusts, which can destroy whole crops, and livestock diseases. The most serious famines have been caused by a combination of drought, misguided economic policies, and conflict. The 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia, for example, was the outcome of all these three factors, made worse by the Communist government's censorship of the emerging crisis. In Sudan at the same date, drought and economic crisis combined with denials of any food shortage by the then-government of President Gaafar Nimeiry, to create a crisis that killed perhaps 250,000 people—and helped bring about a popular uprising that overthrew Nimeiry.
Numerous factors make the food security situation in Africa tenuous, including political instability, armed conflict and civil war, corruption and mismanagement in handling food supplies, and trade policies that harm African agriculture. An example of a famine created by human rights abuses is the 1998 Sudan famine. AIDS is also having long-term economic effects on agriculture by reducing the available workforce, and is creating new vulnerabilities to famine by overburdening poor households. On the other hand, in the modern history of Africa on quite a few occasions famines acted as a major source of acute political instability. In Africa, if current trends of population growth and soil degradation continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.
Recent examples include Ethiopia in 1973 and mid-1980s, Sudan in the late-1970s and again in 1990 and 1998. The 1980 famine in Karamoja, Uganda was, in terms of mortality rates, one of the worst in history. 21% of the population died, including 60% of the infants.
In October 1984, television reports around the world carried footage of starving Ethiopians whose plight was centered around a feeding station near the town of Korem. BBC newsreader Michael Buerk gave moving commentary of the tragedy on 23 October 1984, which he described as a "biblical famine". This prompted the Band Aid single, which was organised by Bob Geldof and featured more than 20 other pop stars. The Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia raised further funds for the cause. An estimated 900,000 people die within one year as a result of the famine, but the tens of millions of pounds raised by Band Aid and Live Aid are widely believed to have saved the lives of around 6,000,000 more Ethiopians who were in danger of death.
More than 20 years on, famine and other forms of poverty are still affecting Ethiopia, but all concerned have insisted that the problems would have been far worse had it not been for Geldof and his fundraising causes.

Famine in Asia


Chinese scholars had kept count of 1,828 rampages by the famine since 108 B.C. to 1911 in one province or another — an average of close to one famine per year. From 1333 to 1337 a terrible famine killed 6,000,000 Chinese. The four famines of 1810, 1811, 1846, and 1849 are said to have killed not less than 45,000,000 people. The period from 1850 to 1873 saw, as a result of Taiping Rebellion, drought, and famine, the population of China drop by over 60 million people. China's Qing Dynasty bureaucracy, which devoted extensive attention to minimizing famines, is credited with averting a series of famines following El Niño-Southern Oscillation-linked droughts and floods. These events are comparable, though somewhat smaller in scale, to the ecological trigger events of China's vast 19th century famines. (Pierre-Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine) Qing China carried out its relief efforts, which included vast shipments of food, a requirement that the rich open their storehouses to the poor, and price regulation, as part of a state guarantee of subsistence to the peasantry (known as ming-sheng).
When a stressed monarchy shifted from state management and direct shipments of grain to monetary charity in the mid-nineteenth century, the system broke down. Thus the 1867–68 famine under the Tongzhi Restoration was successfully relieved but the Great North China Famine of 1877–78 , caused by drought across northern China, was a vast catastrophe. The province of Shanxi was substantially depopulated as grains ran out, and desperately starving people stripped forests, fields, and their very houses for food. Estimated mortality is 9.5 to 13 million people.(Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts)
Great Leap Forward
The largest famine of the 20th century, and almost certainly of all time, was the 1958–61 Great Leap Forward famine in China. The immediate causes of this famine lay in Chairman Mao Zedong's ill-fated attempt to transform China from an agricultural nation, Communist Party cadres across China insisted that peasants abandon their farms for collective farms, and begin to produce steel in small foundries, often melting down their farm instruments in the process. Collectivization undermined incentives for the investment of labor and resources in agriculture; unrealistic plans for decentralized metal production sapped needed labor; unfavorable weather conditions; and communal dining halls encouraged overconsumption of available food (see Chang, G, and Wen, G (1997), "Communal dining and the Chinese Famine 1958-1961" ). Such was the centralized control of information and the intense pressure on party cadres to report only good news—such as production quotas met or exceeded—that information about the escalating disaster was effectively suppressed. When the leadership did become aware of the scale of the famine, it did little to respond, and continued to ban any discussion of the cataclysm. This blanket suppression of news was so effective that very few Chinese citizens were aware of the scale of the famine, and the greatest peacetime demographic disaster of the 20th century only became widely known twenty years later, when the veil of censorship began to lift.
The 1958–61 famine is estimated to have caused excess mortality of about 30 million, with a further 30 million cancelled or delayed births. It was only when the famine had wrought its worst that Mao reversed the agricultural collectivization policies, which were effectively dismantled in 1978. China has not experienced a major famine since 1961 (Woo-Cummings, 2002).


Owing to its almost entire dependence upon the monsoon rains, India is more liable than any other country in the world to crop failures, which upon occasion deepen into famine. There were 14 famines in India between 11th and 17th century (Bhatia, 1985). For example, during the 1022-1033 Great famines in India entire provinces were depopulated. Famine in Deccan killed at least 2 million people in 1702-1704. B.M. Bhatia believes that the earlier famines were localised, and it was only after 1860, during the British rule, that famine came to signify general shortage of foodgrains in the country. There were approximately 25 major famines spread through states such as Tamil Nadu in the south, and Bihar and Bengal in the east during the latter half of the 19th century.
Romesh Dutt argued as early as 1900, and present-day scholars such as Amartya Sen agree, that the famines were a product of both uneven rainfall and British economic and administrative policies, which since 1857 had led to the seizure and conversion of local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restrictions on internal trade, heavy taxation of Indian citizens to support unsuccessful British expeditions in Afghanistan (see The Second Anglo-Afghan War), inflationary measures that increased the price of food, and substantial exports of staple crops from India to Britain. (Dutt, 1900 and 1902; Srivastava, 1968; Sen, 1982; Bhatia, 1985.) Some British citizens, such as William Digby, agitated for policy reforms and famine relief, but Lord Lytton, the governing British viceroy in India, opposed such changes in the belief that they would stimulate shirking by Indian workers. The first, the Bengal famine of 1770, is estimated to have taken around 10 million lives — one-third of Bengal's population at the time. The famines continued until independence in 1947, with the Bengal Famine of 1943–44— even though there were no crop failures —killing 1.5 million to 3 million Bengalis during World War II.
The observations of the Famine Commission of 1880 support the notion that food distribution is more to blame for famines than food scarcity. They observed that each province in British India, including Burma, had a surplus of foodgrains, and the annual surplus was 5.16 million tons (Bhatia, 1970). At that time, annual export of rice and other grains from India was approximately one million tons.
In 1966, there was a close call in Bihar, when the United States allocated 900,000 tons of grain to fight the famine.

North Korea

Famine struck North Korea in the mid-1990s, set off by unprecedented floods. This autarkic urban, industrial society had achieved food self-sufficiency in prior decades through a massive industrialization of agriculture. However, the economic system relied on massive concessionary inputs of fossil fuels, primarily from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. When the Soviet collapse and China's marketization switched trade to a hard currency, full price basis, North Korea's economy collapsed. The vulnerable agricultural sector experienced a massive failure in 1995–96, expanding to full-fledged famine by 1996–99. An estimated 600,000 died of starvation (other estimates range from 200,000 to 3.5 million). North Korea has not yet resumed its food self-sufficiency and relies on external food aid from China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Recently, North Korea requested that food supplies no longer be delivered. (Woo-Cummings, 2002)


Various famines have occurred in Vietnam. Japanese occupation during World War II caused the Vietnamese Famine of 1945, which caused 2 million deaths. Following the unification of the country after the Vietnam War, Vietnam briefly experienced a food shortage in the 1980s, which prompted many people to flee the country.

Famine in Europe

Western Europe

The Great Famine of 1315–1317 (or to 1322) was the first crisis that would strike Europe in the 14th century, millions in northern Europe would die over an extended number of years, marking a clear end to the earlier period of growth and prosperity during the 11th and 12th centuries. Starting with bad weather in the spring of 1315, universal crop failures lasted until the summer of 1317, from which Europe did not fully recover until 1322. It was a period marked by extreme levels of criminal activity, disease and mass death, infanticide, and cannibalism. It had consequences for Church, State, European society and future calamities to follow in the 14th century.
The 17th century was a period of change for the food producers of Europe. For centuries they had lived primarily as subsistence farmers in a feudal system. They had obligations to their lords, who had suzerainty over the land tilled by their peasants. The lord of a fief would take a portion of the crops and livestock produced during the year. Peasants generally tried to minimize the amount of work they had to put into agricultural food production. Their lords rarely pressured them to increase their food output, except when the population started to increase, at which time the peasants were likely to increase the production themselves. More land would be added to cultivation until there was no more available and the peasants were forced to take up more labour-intensive methods of production. Nonetheless, they generally tried to work as little as possible, valuing their time to do other things, such as hunting, fishing or relaxing, as long as they had enough food to feed their families. It was not in their interest to produce more than they could eat or store themselves.
During the 17th century, continuing the trend of previous centuries, there was an increase in market-driven agriculture. Farmers, people who rented land in order to make a profit off of the product of the land, employing wage labour, became increasingly common, particularly in western Europe. It was in their interest to produce as much as possible on their land in order to sell it to areas that demanded that product. They produced guaranteed surpluses of their crop every year if they could. Farmers paid their labourers in money, increasing the commercialization of rural society. This commercialization had a profound impact on the behaviour of peasants. Farmers were interested in increasing labour input into their lands, not decreasing it as subsistence peasants were.
Subsistence peasants were also increasingly forced to commercialize their activities because of increasing taxes. Taxes that had to be paid to central governments in money forced the peasants to produce crops to sell. Sometimes they produced industrial crops, but they would find ways to increase their production in order to meet both their subsistence requirements as well as their tax obligations. Peasants also used the new money to purchase manufactured goods. The agricultural and social developments encouraging increased food production were gradually taking place throughout the sixteenth century, but were spurred on more directly by the adverse conditions for food production that Europe found itself in the early seventeenth century — there was a general cooling trend in the Earth's temperature starting at the beginning end of the sixteenth century.
The 1590s saw the worst famines in centuries across all of Europe, except in certain areas, notably the Netherlands. Famine had been relatively rare during the 16th century. The economy and population had grown steadily as subsistence populations tend to when there is an extended period of relative peace (most of the time). Subsistence peasant populations will almost always increase when possible since the peasants will try to spread the work to as many hands as possible. Although peasants in areas of high population density, such as northern Italy, had learned to increase the yields of their lands through techniques such as promiscuous culture, they were still quite vulnerable to famines, forcing them to work their land even more intensively.
Famine is a very destabilizing and devastating occurrence. The prospect of starvation led people to take desperate measures. When scarcity of food became apparent to peasants, they would sacrifice long-term prosperity for short-term survival. They would kill their draught animals, leading to lowered production in subsequent years. They would eat their seed corn, sacrificing next year's crop in the hope that more seed could be found. Once those means had been exhausted, they would take to the road in search of food. They migrated to the cities where merchants from other areas would be more likely to sell their food, as cities had a stronger purchasing power than did rural areas. Cities also administered relief programs and bought grain for their populations so that they could keep order. With the confusion and desperation of the migrants, crime would often follow them. Many peasants resorted to banditry in order to acquire enough to eat.
One famine would often lead to difficulties in following years because of lack of seed stock or disruption of routine, or perhaps because of less-available labour. Famines were often interpreted as signs of God's displeasure. They were seen as the removal, by God, of His gifts to the people of the Earth. Elaborate religious processions and rituals were made to prevent God's wrath in the form of famine.
The great famine of the 1590s began the period of famine and decline in the 17th century. The price of grain, all over Europe was high, as was the population. Various types of people were vulnerable to the succession of bad harvests that occurred throughout the 1590s in different regions. The increasing number of wage labourers in the countryside were vulnerable because they had no food of their own, and their meager living was not enough to purchase the expensive grain of a bad-crop year. Town labourers were also at risk because their wages would be insufficient to cover the cost of grain, and, to make matters worse, they often received less money in bad-crop years since the disposable income of the wealthy was spent on grain. Often, unemployment would be the result of the increase in grain prices, leading to ever-increasing numbers of urban poor.
All areas of Europe were badly affected by the famine in these periods, especially rural areas. The Netherlands was able to escape most of the damaging effects of the famine, though the 1590s were still difficult years there. Actual famine did not occur, for the Amsterdam grain trade [with the Baltic] guaranteed that there would always be something to eat in the Netherlands although hunger was prevalent.
The Netherlands had the most commercialized agriculture in all of Europe at this time, growing many industrial crops, such as flax, hemp, and hops. Agriculture became increasingly specialized and efficient. As a result, productivity and wealth increased, allowing the Netherlands to maintain a steady food supply. By the 1620s, the economy was even more developed, so the country was able to avoid the hardships of that period of famine with even greater impunity.
The years around 1620 saw another period of famines sweep across Europe. These famines were generally less severe than the famines of twenty-five years earlier, but they were nonetheless quite serious in many areas. Perhaps the worst famine since 1600, the great famine in Finland in 1696, killed a third of the population.
The period of 1740–43 saw frigid winters and summer droughts which led to famine across Europe leading to a major spike in mortality.(cited in Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 281)
Other areas of Europe have known famines much more recently. France saw famines as recently as the nineteenth century. Famine still occurred in eastern Europe during the 20th century.
The frequency of famine can vary with climate changes. For example, during the little ice age of the 15th century to the 18th century, European famines grew more frequent than they had been during previous centuries.
Because of the frequency of famine in many societies, it has long been a chief concern of governments and other authorities. In pre-industrial Europe, preventing famine, and ensuring timely food supplies, was one of the chief concerns of many governments, which employed various tools to alleviate famines, including price controls, purchasing stockpiles of food from other areas, rationing, and regulation of production. Most governments were concerned by famine because it could lead to revolt and other forms of social disruption.
In contrast, the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1849, was in no small part the result of policies of the Whig government of the United Kingdom under Lord Russell. Unlike in Britain, the land in Ireland was owned mostly by Anglican people of English descent, who did not identify culturally or ethnically with the Irish population. The landlords were known as the Anglo-Irish. As the landowners felt no compunction to use their political clout to aid their tenants, the British government's expedient response to the food crisis in Ireland was to leave the matter solely to market forces to decide. A strict free-market approach, aided by the British army guarding ports and food depots from the starving crowds, ensured food exports continued as before, and even increased during the famine period. The immediate effect was 1,000,000 dead and another 1,000,000 refugees fleeing to Britain and the United States. After the famine passed, infertility caused by famine, diseases and immigration spurred by the landlord-run economy being so thoroughly undermined, caused the population to enter into a 100-year decline. It was not until the 1970's that the population of Ireland, then at half of what it had been before the famine, began to rise again. This period of Irish population decline after the famine was at a time when the European population doubled and the English population increased fourfold. This left the country severely underpopulated. The population decline continued in parts of the country worst affected by the famine until the 1990s - 150 years after the famine and the British government's laissez-faire economic policy. Before the Hunger, Ireland's population was over half of England's. Today it is an eighth. The population of Ireland is 6 million but there are over 80 million more people of Irish descent outside of Ireland. That is 20 more times the population of Ireland.
Others state it was not the free market that caused the Irish famine, because at the time, Ireland did not have a free market. Irish Catholic citizens were prohibited by law from owning land, from leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in a corporate town or within five miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things that are necessary in order to succeed and prosper in life.
Famine returned to the Netherlands during World War II in what was known as the Hongerwinter. It was the last famine of Europe, in which approximately 30,000 people died of starvation. Some other areas of Europe also experienced famine at the same time.
The harvest failures were devastating for the northern Italian economy. The economy of the area had recovered well from the previous famines, but the famines from 1618 to 1621 coincided because of a period of war in the area. The economy did not recover fully for centuries. There were serious famines in the late-1640s and less severe ones in the 1670s throughout northern Italy.
From 1536 England began legislating Poor Laws which put a legal responsibility on the rich, at a parish level, to maintain the poor of that parish. English agriculture lagged behind the Netherlands, but by 1650 their agricultural industry was commercialized on a wide scale. The last peace-time famine in England was in 1623–24. There were still periods of hunger, as in the Netherlands, but there were no more famines as such. Rising population levels continued to put a strain on food security, despite potatoes becoming increasingly important in the diet of the poor. On balance, potatoes increased food security in England where they never replaced bread as the staple of the poor. Climate conditions were never likely to simultaneously be catastrophic for both the wheat and potato crops.
In 1783 the volcano Laki in south-central Iceland erupted. The lava caused little direct damage, but ash and sulfur dioxide spewed out over most of the country, causing three-quarters of the island's livestock to perish. In the following famine, around ten thousand people died, one-fifth of the population of Iceland. [Asimov, 1984, 152-153]

Russia and the USSR

Droughts and famines in Imperial Russia are known to have happened every 10 to 13 years, with average droughts happening every 5 to 7 years. Famines continued in the Soviet era, the most notorious being the Holodomor in Ukraine (1932–1933). The last major famine in the USSR happened in 1947 due to the severe drought.


Sources & further reading

  • Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's New Guide to Science, pp. 152-153, Basic Books, Inc. : 1984.
  • Bhatia, B.M. (1985) Famines in India: A study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India with Special Reference to Food Problem, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
  • Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, London, Verso, 2002 (Excerpt online.)
  • Dutt, Romesh C. Open Letters to Lord Curzon on Famines and Land Assessments in India, first published 1900, 2005 edition by Adamant Media Corporation, Elibron Classics Series, ISBN 1-4021-5115-2.
  • Dutt, Romesh C. The Economic History of India under early British Rule, first published 1902, 2001 edition by Routledge, ISBN 0-415-24493-5
  • Genady Golubev and Nikolai Dronin, Geography of Droughts and Food Problems in Russia (1900-2000), Report of the International Project on Global Environmental Change and Its Threat to Food and Water Security in Russia (February, 2004).
  • Greenough, Paul R., Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal. The Famine of 1943-1944, Oxford University Press 1982
  • LeBlanc, Steven, Constant battles: the myth of the peaceful, noble savage, St. Martin's Press (2003) argues that recurring famines have been the major cause of warfare since paleolithic times. ISBN 0312310897
  • Mead, Margaret. “The Changing Significance of Food.” American Scientist. (March-April 1970). pp. 176-189.
  • Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982
  • Srivastava, H.C., The History of Indian Famines from 1858-1918, Sri Ram Mehra and Co., Agra, 1968.
  • Sommerville, Keith. Why famine stalks Africa, BBC, 2001
  • Woo-Cumings, Meredith, , ADB Institute Research Paper 31, January 2002.
famines in Czech: Hladomor
famines in Danish: Hungersnød
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