The prospect of a famine-free world hinges on improved governance and peace. It is as simple - or as difficult - as that. Cormac Ó Gráda

Sometimes it happens that you are vaguely aware of a person and you know they coined a term and then by some random chance you come across evidence that this person effectively made the world just much worse. For me this was the case with Thomas Malthus and the book Famine: A short history. I was vaguely aware of Malthus as the person who introduced the idea of a Malthusian Trap: “Humanity will always be in a cycle of population growth and famine, because we tend to consume all available resources.” However, what I did not know is that he actively argued for just letting people starve, because you would just be intervening in a natural cycle that has to happen. And if you intervene, people will just breed more and the only thing you bought is a bigger famine in the future. Those ideas took hold, led to a lot of suffering and deaths and we basically needed the whole time period from ~ 1800 to ~ 1950 to reverse them again.

However, to his defense when he came up with those ideas it really looked like you cannot avoid famine, but Famine: A short history is about the fact that humanity managed to transform famine from a common horror to something that rarely happens anymore (and could be easily avoided completely).

What causes famine?

Famine is often seen as a product of overpopulation. This view was championed by economists like Thomas Malthus. However, this isn’t really the case. When we look at the past we can see that the main thing that keeps the population in check is disease and not famine. Therefore, famine needs to have different causes than a too high population and there are two main culprits: harvest failure and war. Harvest failure simply means that you had a harvest that was considerably less than you need, while war disrupts the harvest and distribution of food.

In addition to those main causes, there are also risk factors, which will make it more likely for you to be hit by famine.

  • Location: Some regions are just more fertile than others. If you live in a region where you can barely make ends meet, every disruption will hit you much harder.
  • Climate: Harvest failure is usually caused by having too little water. Therefore, if you live in regions with less predictable rainfall you are more at risk. Changes in global climate like El Nino also play a role here, as do volcanic eruptions (which have been the culprits for many famines in the past).
  • Culture: The more totalitarian your state is, the higher is your chance of ending up in a famine, even in peacetime.
  • Economics: The richer you are, the less likely it is that you will suffer from famine, because you have slack in the system which you can use to acquire food. Though this does not make the risk of famine due to war smaller.
  • Colonialism: Early colonialism disrupted local communities and made famine considerably worse. However, this changed over time, as it connected the colonized regions to the world market for food, which in turn decreased famine.
  • Timing: Famine due to harvest failure usually only happen when you have two bad years back to back.

If you combine all those factors you end up in the situation of Cape Verde, which regularly lost ~ 50 % of its population to famine, before it got integrated into the global economy.

How much do we know about famines in the past?

The book often makes the case that assessing famines of the past is very hard. We basically only know for sure that they happened more often in the past and were more devastating. However, how much more often and how devastating is quite unclear, because the sources are very unreliable.

However, we do know that they only really started after the agricultural revolution. Skeletons from hunter-gatherers usually show signs of being well fed.

Early warning signs?

Famines don’t arise suddenly. There is usually a list of warning signs before it gets really bad. These include:

  • Rising food prices and food riots.
  • An increase in crime against property, because people try to generate money to buy food. Crimes decrease again when the famine gets really bad, because people lack the energy to act.
  • A decrease in sexual crimes like rape, because hunger surpresses libido.
  • An increase in prostitution, as people try to get food in any way possible. However, this usually decreases quickly again, because there is little demand.

Two signs that are usually portrayed as signs of famine, revolution and people with big bellies due to hunger, aren’t really signs of famine. Revolution can only happen before a famine really starts. Once the famine is ongoing, people lack the energy to revolt. Swollen bellies on the other hand are a sign of malnutrition and endemic hunger, but not of actual famine.

What happens during a famine?

Once a famine sets in it faces people with very tough decisions, like who in the family is allowed to survive? Those tough decisions bring out the best and worst in humanity. There have been stories of incredible kindness and cruelty during famine.

One common thing that happened during famines in the past is that people tried to sell themselves or their relatives into slavery. This would generate some money and decrease the number of people to feed.

Cannibalism on the other hand, which is often portrayed as being typical for famines rarely happens. While it is unclear how often it happens, there are only very few verified cases and basically none on a large scale.

Famines also lead to a strong decline in birth rates, due to decreased libido and more miscarriages and also a shift in family planning.

In general, people in famine mostly don’t die of starvation. They die due to disease. When people are starving, they have less energy to keep hygiene going and their immune system is weakened, which in turn makes them more likely to catch a disease. This also means that lots of deaths in a famine can be avoided if hygiene is kept up. Examples of famines where keeping the hygiene going decreased the death rate considerably are the Siege of Leningrad and the famine in Holland in 1944/45.

Who is hit most?

The poorer you are the worse you are off, especially if you are landless. Rich people only start dying when the epidemics hit.

In many accounts of famines, women are portrayed as the most likely victims. However, in reality the death rate of men is higher. This is likely due to the fact that women store more body fat, which gives them an extra buffer if food is scarce. The evidence regarding mortality by age is mixed, with most famine victims historically being young children and the elderly, but the largest proportional increases in death rates tend to occur at ages where mortality is typically low during non-famine times.

What are the long-term consequences?

Beside the obvious cost of people dying to starvation and disease, famines also have a hidden cost. They traumatize people and scar their bodies for the rest of their life. People who survived a famine are:

  • less likely to have children
  • less likely to marry
  • more likely to have mental health problems
  • more likely to have physical health problems
  • having a reduced life expectancy

Children suffer an additional toll. If children are born or grow up during famine they:

  • tend to be more obese in their later life
  • have higher rates of all disease in general
  • have considerably more schizophrenia (unclear why)
  • don’t grow as tall

Population trends however are mostly unaffected by famine, as famine did not happen often enough to control population.

How can you prevent famines? (and which things you should avoid)

There are a wide variety of interventions and structures that can be implemented to reduce the likelihood of famines. Those can be grouped by their scope.

State level

  • Having free markets: If food can be freely sold and traded, it is much more likely that enough food will make it in time. However, this can never be the only solution, as market failures happen and poor people might not be able to afford the increased prices. This also only holds true for modern markets. In the past, famines were often made worse by merchants who held back grain and spread rumors to increase prices.
  • Improving transport infrastructure: Past famines often happened because food could not be transported in time. If you have good railway access, you can transport food easily over long distances.
  • Migration: Allowing people to move freely gives them the option to move to areas with more food, while also decreasing the pressure on local food resources.
  • Investing more in agricultural infrastructure: As many harvest failures are caused by too little water, investments here pay off the most.
  • Live in a democratic society: In democracies leaders are held more accountable and thus have a much stronger incentive to keep people fed.

Local level

  • More trade
  • Crop diversification
  • Overproduction of food
  • Storing more food
  • Changing local crops
  • Becoming nomadic
  • Changing agricultural practices

Personal level

  • Having fewer children
  • Enslaving oneself
  • Killing the young, old and weak
  • Changing diet to less preferred or famine foods
  • Lending money to buy food
  • Decreasing spending for everything but food

The things you can do at a personal level have the worst trade-offs by far and should be avoided as much as possible. Also, the interventions on the state level provide much more security than everything that could be done on a personal level. Especially, the strength of democratic institutions seems to be a good predictor of how often and how bad states are hit by famines, as they limit corruption and increase accountability. It should also be avoided to attach conditions to helping the poor, as was proposed by e.g. Martin Luther and Thomas Malthus. This only increases the suffering, while not giving any benefits.

Why do we have less now?

As stated at the beginning, famines have become much less frequent and intense. In Particular, rich countries do not suffer from famine anymore. But even the countries which still suffer have considerably less excess deaths in comparison with the past.

To summarize, we have less famine now because:

  • Food output per person has increased globally.
  • Disaster relief now happens on a global level, which means that a harvest failure in a single region does not matter that much.
  • The worst famines in history are associated with Hitler, Stalin and Mao and we simply did not have such influential totalitarian leaders since them.
  • More trade between countries and freer markets.
  • Introduction of very productive plants like potatoes.
  • Economic and scientific progress in general.

This means the only real factor that remains today is war. As long as we can avoid war, we will be able to avoid famines.