Today, the World Is More Than Ever in the Grip of Famine.
The great famines of the past centuries came from climatic or military shocks.
It is a frightening risk that is coming back to the fore almost suddenly. A risk that had practically disappeared from the planet, at least on a large scale, and that could reappear, under the combined action of several forces. This risk is famine!
The events of the last few years play a major role in this possibility of resurgence. The Russian-led war in Ukraine pits the world's largest wheat exporter against the fifth largest. The COVID-19 epidemic has caused border closures, precautionary stockpiling, and the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of women and men.
But the risk of famine had already reappeared before the pandemic in reality. In 2017, the United Nations sounded the alarm for the Horn of Africa following several years of drought, claiming that 20 million people were at risk. The damage had fortunately been limited by humanitarian aid.
Until then, famine seemed to be a disappearing scourge.
The last major famine hit Somalia in 2011, against a backdrop of drought and political unrest. It is said to have claimed around 150,000 victims (a figure that is only an order of magnitude; some people put the figure at 250,000). Since the 1980s, famines have caused an average of nearly 100,000 deaths per year worldwide. A very high figure ... but ten times less than in previous decades.
More frequent in dictatorships
Because the 20th century was rich in famines. These events are all the more sinister because most of them were caused by human beings, and could therefore have been avoided.
The two most deadly came from communism, which imposed catastrophic collectivization of agricultural land. This was the “Great Leap Forward” decreed by Mao Zedong at the end of the 1950s (tens of millions of deaths ensued). And the Soviet famines of 1931-1933, which were particularly violent ... in Ukraine.
The other great famines of the last century came from wars - World Wars I and II, but also from local wars like in Biafra at the end of the 1960s. Looking back on these tragedies, the economist Amartya Sen showed in the 1980s the role of inequalities in these dramas. He also noted that famines are much more frequent in dictatorships than in democracies (because an elected government tries to avoid a famine, which is too costly politically).
Too much rain
But going further back in time, the landscape is different. Before the agricultural revolution that began in the Netherlands and England in the 17th century and then flourished in Europe in the 18th century, famines had causes other than human decisions.
Two historical economists, Guido Alfani (of Italy's Bocconi University) and Cormac Ó Gráda (of Ireland's University College Dublin), show “that in pre-industrial times, major famines almost always occurred during periods of high population pressure on resources.”
No one knew how to increase agricultural production. Famine occurs when two movements combine: population growth and climatic events that cause crops to fail - most often excessive rainfall in the spring or summer. For centuries, it seemed impossible for France to exceed 20 million inhabitants (and England 5 million).
The role of climate change
In other words, when Thomas Malthus formalized his “population principle” in 1798, according to which population growth is brutally constrained by the growth of food production, he was describing Europe quite precisely as it had been functioning ... centuries earlier.
In their work, Alfani and Ó Gráda also note that famines in the Middle Ages occur more frequently when the climate changes. “Phases of rapid climate change may have increased the probability of extreme weather events damaging to crops,” the two researchers surmise.
This brings us back to the present times. Today, the climate is changing, as it did during the little ice age at the end of the 16th century cited by Alfani and Ó Gráda. After the summer that we have just lived, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny it. And this changing climate will weigh on the crops as the world's population continues to grow - it will exceed 8 billion next month.
So the fatal conjunction that was at the heart of the great medieval famines is here again. And that's not the only reason to worry. After the Second World War and the fall of the Iron Wall that separated the planet into two blocks, it was possible to imagine a peaceful world, where wars would eventually disappear.
What is happening today in Ukraine proves that this was only an illusion. The second major cause of famines, the one that has been dominant over the last two centuries, unfortunately, seems to have a bright future. The effect is all the stronger because trade, which has prevented many food shocks in recent decades, seems to be under threat.
“The risk of famine is much higher today than it has been for many decades,” say Alfani and Ó Gráda. We can't say we didn't know this time.
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