Will Famines Become a Thing of the Past?

Governance, not environmental disasters, causes deadly food shortages—and we’re getting better at avoiding such crises.
Drought-stricken corn crops. (Photo: Dave Kosling/USDA via Flickr)
May 11, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Something was wrong with the potatoes. Above the ground, the leaves were pocked with dark spots, and the starchy tubers below were rotted black, sometimes even covered in a white mold. Starting in 1845, Irish farmers planted and harvested potatoes year after year, only to find most of them ruined. There was little else to eat. By the time the resulting famine ended, more than a million people had died from starvation or diseases caused by the food shortages, and another million people had emigrated from the island.

Famine is so often tied to drought or disease that history books show a causal relationship. In 1960s China, drought helped spark the world’s deadliest famine, killing 30 million people. Since then, the number of deaths owing to famine has fallen precipitously. It seems that world efforts to reduce poverty and hunger, such as the Millennium Development Goals, are working. According to economist Max Roser’s data analysis “Our World in Data,” famine resulted in roughly 1.4 million deaths in the 1980s, 3.6 million in the 1990s, and 1,138 in the early 2000s. As rising temperatures lead to greater incidence of drought and pestilence, it’s natural to worry that famine will increase with it. But the causes of famine often have more to do with politics and stability in a country than with agriculture. While it’s important for researchers to adapt crops to a changing climate, food insecurity won’t end because of innovations like drought-resistant corn alone.

What constitutes a famine isn’t completely agreed on—various groups have differing definitions. According to the U.N., famine is only declared after 20 percent of households in a given area are facing “extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope,” “acute malnutrition rates exceed[ing] 30 percent,” and a death rate of two people per day for every 10,000 people. That high threshold is part of the reason why famine can be prevented by government action. Even when there’s a deadly scarcity of food, government and international aid can keep it from becoming nonexistent. As global agricultural trade has become more common, rerouting food from unaffected areas can mitigate local market shocks from extreme weather events or crop failures.

In Ethiopia, the worst drought in three decades has resulted in food shortages but no dramatic increases in the mortality rate, according to Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation. “Peace, political liberalization and greater government accountability are the best safeguards against famine,” he wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece. According to a World Peace Foundation analysis, 90 percent of the 115 million people who died of starvation between 1870 and 1980 did so “as a result of imperial conquest, great wars, or repression under totalitarian regimes.”

But a government that prioritizes agriculture can prevent hunger and reduce poverty. During the 1980s, for example, the Vietnamese government poured investments into agriculture as part of an economic reform known as “Doi Moi.” Per capita income increased from $100 in 1986 to $2,100 by the end of 2015, according to the World Bank. “The reforms unleashed a new entrepreneurial spirit in Vietnam, both in agriculture and in other sectors. Farmers intensified rice production, diversified into new crops such as coffee and cashews, and improved the quality of the food they produced,” Nguyen Do Anh Tuan, director of Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development, wrote in a paper on the agrarian reforms published in the book Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development. When agriculture became an industry that created profit—rather than a subsistence income—people invested in it, and the entire country’s economy profited as a result.

Drought alone didn’t cause China’s Great Famine. While government choices in Vietnam helped overall growth and agricultural production, poor choices can also ruin rural economies. As part of the Great Leap Forward, the Communist Chinese government ordered many peasant agricultural workers away from farms to develop the country’s steel industry instead. The remaining farmers were forced to use agricultural methods that the government mistakenly believed would increase grain yields—reducing harvest sizes instead. Officials reported inflated production numbers, which led the country to export grain even while much of the peasant population starved to death.

Despite an increasing population, the rate of hunger in developing countries decreased 39 percent between 1990 and 2014, according to the Global Hunger Index. Most of this improvement occurred because of economic development, government programs that actively attempted to curb malnutrition among the population, and an end to civil wars that prevented political stability. Many governments and NGOs have said that there is more than enough food produced every year to prevent hunger.

Agricultural and environmental issues alone don’t cause starvation—poverty and poor governance do.