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Agricultural Economics: Famine

Figure 1.-- This press photo was taken in China during March 1946. The caption read, "Chinese lad carrting weakened mother into village of Kung Ping, where more than 500 starvation victims are cared for daily at INRRA feeding stations."

Famine is defined as an substantial shortage of food that causes widespread hunger leading to mass starvation and and death. It is one of the greatest caminities to befall humans since the emerge of man kind. Famines affected early hinter gsthers, although they had the abikity to migrate out of areas affected by drought. Famines became much more serious with the development of agriculture and hunan population became lasrger and more settled. Famines throughout history are often the result of natural conditions, especially drought. As human society evolved, human activity often exacerbated natural famines or in some cases caused them to bgin with, These actins have included war, overpopulastion, enviromental degradation, and economic and agriculturl mismanagement. Famines from these causes wee often inadvertent. There have been famines created on purpose by governments to weaken or destroy groups for political reasons. Famine not only leads to mass deaths, butcan weaken the social fabric, and undermine political stability. This appears to have occurred in pre-Colombian Meso America. Famine remains one of the worst calamities that can befall human society. Mass starvation has not been elimated, but has been reduced as a major problem because of the American engineered Green Revolution and humanitarian relief efforts. One of the countries most severly affected by famine in our modern world are authoritarian regimes such as Burma and Rhodesia which do not face adverse natural conditions and are primarily concerned about retaining power. The nost egregious case is Communist North Korea. Here there were natural problems, but famine have been brought on by a mix of ideology discouraging production and policies designed to maintain a failed regime in power.




Famines are tragic, but frequently occuring phenonnon in South Asia. Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on climate, pptimsrily because this affects rsinfall abd the water needed for crops. Aa favorable southwest summer monsoon is critical in producung the water needed for irrigating crops. Given the importance of the summer monsoon, Indian scientusts have addressed the issue of assessing the monsoons and providing officials needed for droughtband famine managemnent. [Swain et al., pp. 5505–5507] Climate and weather including the monsoons are variible meaning that the water needed for agriculture delivered varies and there are periodic droughts. These droughts have periodically led to major Indian famines. The severity of the drought and famine os in karge measure deoendent on just how little rain falls, but policy issues are another variable and can signiicantly affect mortality rates. The famines have been devestating. South Asia is a large area. Most of even the major famines have been loclized or the most severe in local aeas, usdully becuse of vritions on rainfall patterns. These famines hase been a problem since ancient times. The historical record is extrodinarily limited. The earliest widely accepted Indin texts are the Edicts of Ashoka (3rd century BC). They were written in very early forms of middle-Indo-Aryan languages in the Brahmi script. And almost from the beginning we see references to famine, but very few details. It is clear thar rukers over time attempted or were expected to mitigate famine conduitions during poeriods of drought. It is not clear to what extent they failes or suceeded. There were two primary policy resonmses. First was direct distrubution. This involved creating grain stockpiles which could be distrinuted in time of drought and crop failure. Te second methos in volve indutect means such as lolweting taxes or other exactiins on the producers. There could also be various market interventions. Despite India's extensive historical record we know very little about early Indian famines. Only since the beginning of British rule (late-18th century), however do we have detailed reporting on famines in the subconinebnt. One of he the justifications of British rule was a more systematic administration. Nothing could be done sbout the weather, but policies could be implemented that prevented fanine and death. In this regard, th British absolutely failed (19th centutry). Laissez-faire attitudes like those associated with the Irish Potato Famine were a major part of the problem. A series of 19th century famines during the British Raj were caused by harvest failure. This only began to change with the turn of the 20th century. Finally thd British managded effective fzmine relief measures. There was, however, one last devestaing famine--the World War II Bengal Famine (1943). Here it was not a failure of the summer monsoon, but the Japanese seizure of Burma which bad been supplying rice to Bengal.


Ancient World

The first recorded famines come fom the Middle East (4th millennium BC). Famines are decribed in the Bible. Famine appears to have drive the Hebrew people into Egypt. After famine developed in Rome, thousands of starving people drowned themselves in The Tiber River (436 BC). Rome developed into a huge city which could only be supported bygrain imports from Egypt and North Africa. Many Romans came to rely on state bread handouts. Roman emperors might withhold grain from the Roman people as a form of control.

Medieval Europe

Natural causes, overpopulation, bad harvests, and epidemic diseases (like the Black Plague) contributed to hundreds of famines in medieval Europe. One historian lists 95 recorded in Britain alone. some Londoners were reduced to eating tree bark to survive (1235). Some 20,000 Londoners die of starvation. Perhaps the greatest medieval famine was the Great Famine (14th century).

The 16th Century

Warfare was a major cause of famine as armies lived off the country. The destruction resulting from war commonly devesated the countryside. Hungary reported famines (1505 and 1598).

The 17th Century

Half a million Russians die from starvation (1600). Religious wars devestated Europe. The most terrible was the Thirty Years WarThe in Germany.

The 18th Century

Famine in India kills an estimated 2 million people (1702-04).

The 19th Century

The potato imported from Peru becomes a mainstay in Europe. It was especially important in Ireland. By the early 1840s almost half the Irish population, particularly the rural poor, was depending almost entirely on the potato for sustinance. A series of blights (plant diseases) destroyed the Irish potato crop. The potato crop failed in successive years (1845–49). English and other Protestant landlords ship needed food overseas while the native Irish peasantry go hungry. As a result of the Potato Famine, many sarve, estimates often site 1 million deaths. oters emigrate to Americ and other countries. Irelsand is the only European country that did not increase in population during the 19th century. Three years of severe drought in northern China lead to between 9 and 13 million deaths. Similar circumstances resulted in one of India's worst famines with 5 million dead (1876-79). The Raj failed to prevent the huge death toll.

The 20th Century

Terrible famines occurred in the 20th century. Many were political famines in contrast to the mostly enviromental famines that dominated human history. And most of the 20th century famines were connected with the totalitarian political movements (Communist and Fascist) which played such a major role in the gistory of the century. The Huang He River in northern China, often called "China's sorrow", floods, ruining crops and bringing a famine that kills more than 3 million. Communist farm policies in the Soviet Union fail, leading to famine and 9 to 8 million dead (1932-34). The consequences were especially severe in the Ukraine, primarily because Stalin wanted to elimninate resistance to Soviet rule. Burma was a major rice producer and exporter. It supplied substasntial quantities to India, especially eastermn India or Bengal. The Japanese World War II occupation of Burma (1942) cut off rice to the Bengal region of eastern India. Some 2 million people are believe to have perished in the resulting Bengal Famine. (1943). Japanese occupation authorities caused a massive but less well reported famine in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in which an estimated 4-5 million died. They were resonsible for a comparable fainein French Indo-China (Vietnam). Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward to modernize the Chinese economy (1957–60) caused a famine from misguided farm and industrial policies in which as many as 20 million died. The Nigerian Civil War results in the isolation of Biafra (1967-70). Several million Biafrans are believed to have died. A flood in Bangladesh destroys crops (1974). The poor are unsable to buy food and many starve. The Kymer Rouge bring about a famine in the Kiling Fields (1970s). Ethiopia suffers two devastating drought-related famines (early-1970s and mid-1990s). Famine resulting from flooding, drought, and economic mismanagement kills as many as 3 million in Communist North Korea (1995-99). Famine conditions continue to threaten areas in Asia and southern Africa.

21st Century

Famine occurred in Niger (2005).


Swain, S, P. Patel, and S. Nandi. "Application of SPI, EDI and PNPI using MSWEP precipitation data over Marathwada, India". IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium -- IGARSS (2017).


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Created: 8:44 PM 2/11/2010
Last updated: 8:28 PM 7/11/2021