July 23, 2017

Man-made famines

Book Review: The Geography of Famine, by William A. Dando. Arnold, London, 1980.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 10 No. 10, December 1980.


This is an extremely interesting book. Its overt goal is to show that, in general, famines, rather than be ‘acts of God’, as many people assume, are, in fact, man-made:

“Natural factors cause crop failures, but humans cause famines”.

The book is admirably documented, the author having actually gone to the trouble to develop a computer data bank on the subject which now contains information from over 8,000 famines that have occurred in the last 6,000 years.

His study reveals that famine was relatively unknown among hunter-gatherers. It is only when man started to lead a sedentary existence and indulged in large-scale agriculture, that famines began to occur.

“Famine is a characteristic of crop and livestock agriculture, and was not a facet of pre-agricultural systems.”

What is more, famines have become more numerous with the ‘march of progress’. In India, for instance, the frequency of famines dramatically increased during the British Raj. Thus there have probably been 90 famines in that country in the last 2,500 years, but 66 percent of them occurred since 1701.

In the pre-European era, there was about one famine every 40 years, but as Dando tells us:

“famine frequency increased in the period of the British conquest (1707-1815) to one famine every seven years.”

But even more striking than the increase in famine frequency and magnitude of famine deaths, was the change in the nature of famine,

“from a shortage of food in pre-European India to the lack of the ability to buy food in British India.”

This ties in with the conclusion of B. Bhatia’s book Famines in India in which famine was equated with poverty. The people were impoverished partly by the land taxes to raise money for the financing of the Indian Army, partly by the workings of the market system itself which made grain available at a price they could not afford. Dando’s survey on famines in Russian history yield the same results:

“In essence . . . all of the famines that have occurred in Russia from 971 to 1970 can be predominantly attributed to human factors.”

What of future famines? According to Dando these can only become more frequent and more serious. Third World countries are being forced to export more and more of their food, the increasing use of high yielding crops associated with the introduction of the Green Revolution must also increase vulnerability to agriculture.

“A world crop by crop analysis reveals an extremely risky dependence on a narrow gene base, more and more people are being fed on fewer and fewer crops and these are becoming increasingly uniform, genetically, and increasingly vulnerable to plant disease epidemics.”

The chemicalisation of agriculture is also likely to lead to famine.

“Man, by assuming that the soil is lifeless, may change its structure, processes and functions. There is a risk of man killing life-supporting plant matrix soil.”

As a result of these and similar developments the famines of the future are likely to be very much larger-scale events.

“In the past they were short term events, confined to restricted geographical areas and taking the lives of limited numbers of people.”

Surprisingly enough, there have been no nationwide famines even in India, China or the USSR. However

“future famines will last for extended periods of time; cover broad geographical areas; encompassing many nations; and will involve tens of millions.”

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