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Unformatted text preview: 2 Famines: The H istorica I Context Famines get the spotlight. The television specials and the historical controversies and the sad Irish songs are about famines. But famine is a fairly smalJ part of the world food problem. lfthrough some magical intervention we could end famines, we would stilJ have an enormous problem of widespread, pervasive, and permanent undernutrition. Although most of this book is focused on this pervasive and permanent condition, this chapter discusses famine. In the popular press, the word famine is used to describe any newsworthy food shortage. Here we reserve the term to refer to localized, temporary, and severe food shortages. Famines are almost always the result of a confluence of forces that include natural disaster and poor policy response. Of course, there is a connection between the permanent state of widespread undernutrition and the crisis of famine: in countries where undernutrition is a serious and common problem, it does not take much of a natural disaster to create a famine. Brief descriptions of present and historical famines illustrate how natural disasters and policy responses have interacted to create or exacerbate famines. These examples also illustrate some of the ways that economists have studied famines and policy approaches to famine. The Irish Potato Famine The Irish potato famine of the late J 840s is fairly well known in the West because it spurred a wave of Irish emigration to the United States, transforming US culture in ways that continue to be seen, especially on St. Patrick's Day, and because the famine became emblematic of the British repression of Ireland. Ireland of the 1840s was a country of deep and widespread rural poverty. Seventy-two percent of the Irish people were illiterate (Johnston 2003), and 37 percent lived in mud houses with a single room (Johnston 2003; Donnelly 7 8 The FactsAbout Malnutrition 200 I :2). Per capita income in Ireland in the early I 840s was only about 60 percent of tbe level in Britain (Mokyr 1985). Poverty was especially prevalent in rural areas. About two-thirds of the Irish population depended On agriculture for their livelihoods (Kinealy 2002:18), and 40 percent of these were landless laborers (Donnelly 2001:9). Much of the land in the Irish countryside was owned in large tracts by landlords. Landless laborers acquired plots of land from the landlord and in return either worked in the landlord's fields (primarily growing grain or flax for linen for export, Or producing butter for sale in urban areas) at paid a rent to the landlord. A social structure that trapped Irish labor in the agricultural sector caused labor productivity in that sector to be about half that of British agricultural workers (Donnelly 200 1:9). In this environment of poverty, a third of Irish households depended almost exclusively on potatoes for food (a farmer in pre-famine Ireland might have consumed twelve Or more pounds of poratoes per day). Potatoes have a number of advantages as a law-cost food source in Ireland: they can be grown in relatively poor soil; they yield a high number of calories per acre; and they are rich in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. A diet of potatoes and bunermilk (a low-value by-product of producing butter) provides better nutrition than a diet consisting primarily of wheat or maize. Because of the potato-based diet, and despite the widespread poverty, "the Irish poor were among the tallest, healthiest and most fertile population in Europe" (Kioealy 2002:32). (See Box 2.1 for a more general assessment of the importance of the potato to European economic development.) The cheap and nutritious potato diet served as a foundation for low-wage agriculture; cheap food exported from Ireland in tum fueled the iodustrial revolution in Britain. In addition, the low-wage labor provided a cushion protecting some landlords from the consequences of their inefficient farming practices. Box 2.1 The Importance of Potatoes in European Development I I Research by economists Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian demonstrates the importance of the potato in European development more generally: "[T]he introduction oftbe potato was responsible ... for approximately one-quarter of the growth in (European] population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900" (2011: 593). Nunn and Qian are able to attribute causality because of geographical differences in the degree to which the potato was a suitable crop and because of differences in when the potato was introduced to different areas. (The potato is a South American crop, unknown in Europe before Columbus's voyages, and introduced Widely in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.) Il!:---=--~~ _ Famines: The Historical Context 9 The potato blight-s-a fungus that causes potatoes to tum black and rotten as they grow in the ground-had appeared in small areas prior to 1845. But the blight hit about half the crop in 1845, and destroyed nearly the entire crop in 1846, 1848, and 1849 (the 1847 crop was partially successful). Estimates of famine-related deaths range from 290,000 to 1,250,000 compared to Ireland's pre-famine population of about 8 million (Johnston 2003). Once the severity of the potato blight was understood, a tremendous amount of attention was devoted to the appropriate "policy response": What could or should the government do? Throughout the nineteenth century, Ireland was governed by Great Britain. The choices made by the British government, and the criticisms of these choices, iIlustrate a philosophical or ideological debate about the appropriate relationship between government action and private action. The policy decisions fall into three categories (identified here with today's nomenclature): technology policy-what the government should do to encourage better scientific understanding of the causes and consequences of the potato blight; trade policy-what the government should do to increase food imports or reduce food exports during a time of famine; and poverty alleviation policy-what the government should do to help the poor. The British government recognized the possibility of ending the famine with a technological fix, but its efforts never came to fruition. The government instituted a board of scientific experts to draw conclusions about how to save potatoes that had been infected by the blight. The board's recommendations involved complex chemical procedures requiring materials and training unavailable to the starving Irish masses. Even if followed, the program promised little hope of success. The government also appealed to the private sector by promising to purchase and donate to all farmers any treatment that would kill the blight. No successful antifimgal treatment was discovered until years after the Irish famine. Trade policy in the mid-nineteenth century was the subject of intense ideological debate. The individuals in power during much of the famine were ardent proponents of free trade, or laissez-faire-a policy of minimal government intervention in markets. The Irish famine put pressure on both sides of the debate over free trade. On the one hand, the famine provided the impetus for repeal of the Com Laws that restricted imports of food into Ireland. On the other hand, exports offood from Ireland continued. The rigidity ofthe position in favor of free trade is reflected in an exchange between Randolph Routh, an official in Ireland administering food distribution, and Charles Trevelyan, the permanent head of the treasury for the British government (quoted in Donnelly 2001:69): Routh: "I know there is great and serious objection to any interference with these [food] exports, yet it is a most serious evil." •v The FactsAbout Malnutrition Trevelyan: ..\ e beg of you not to COuntenance in any way the idea of prohibiting . ponation. The di Couragemem and feeling of insecurity to the [grain] Irllde from such a proceeding would prevent its doing even any immediare good; and there cannot be a doubt that it would inflict a permanent injury On the country." ars m hol point 10 evidence of ubstantial reductions in grain exports to n rude that "even if exports had been prohibited, Ireland lacked sufficient food ... to lave off famine" (Gray 1982:46). Kinealy notes that exports of ther food commodities remained high, and concludes: "The Irish poor did not larve becau e there was an inadequate supply of food within the country, they tarv d becau e political, cOmmercial, and individuaJ greed was given priority ever thc saving of lives" (2002: 116). If trade policy illu trates the role of ideology in policy, poverty assistance Or relief policy illu trate the law of unintended consequences. Policies to help the poor during the famine were under constant discussion and revision. The government polieie included such aspects as: • Importation of grain from the United States. • "Work houses" where poor families could live. • Public works programs to provide incomes to the jobless. • Soup kitchens distributing prepared food. The Cost of these programs was financed in large part through a tax on Irish landlords. The amount of the tax depended on how many poor households Or tenants l.ived on the landlord's property. Landlords realized that they could reduce their tax burden by eVicting tenants from their farms and destroying the tenant cottages. In this way, the policy intended to help the poor actually ended up separating many poor people from their shelter and from their means of growing food. The evictions had the impact of consoJidating JandhoJdings into larger farms. Between 1841 and 1851, the number of small farms (5 acres or less) dropped from over 300,000 to Jess than 100,000. The number of large farms (30 acres or more) tripled (Johnston 2003). Many landlords, having Jost their rent-paying tenants, went bankrupt. Over the next decades, the landlord-tenant system died out, and it became COmmonplace for Irish farmers to Own the land that they worked. Some of the better-off tenants Who lost their homes to eviction had sufficient resources to emigrate to the Americas. During the 1840s, an estimated 1.3 million Irish people emigra.ted. The conditions of their voyages were harsh: perhaps as many as 40 percent ofthe emigrants died during the passage to the Americas (Abbot 2003). Mike Davis (200 1), in his book on late-.Victorian era hoJocausts, de- Famines: The Historical C,ontext 11 scribes a set of circumstances and ideologies that led to and exacerbated the Bengal famine of the 1870s that are quite similar to those described here for the Irish famine. Famines Created by Government Policies Two of the worst famines in the past century occurred in centrally planned economies: the famine in the Ukraine of the 1930s and the Great Leap Forward famine in China of the 1950s. If the Irish potato famine illustrates that a famine can occur in a country governed by those who embrace a laissez-faire ideology, these two famines illustrate that state socialism is not immune to poor policy choices that cause or exacerbate famine conditions. The Ukrainian Famine, 1932-1933 By the early 1930s, the urban industrial regions of the Soviet Union had been transformed into a collectively state-owned, centrally planned system. In 1929, Stalin introduced a policy of compulsory collectivization of agriculture. Under the collectivization plan, all of the productive assets-land, machinery, cattle, and so forth-{)f25 million farmers were to be aggregated into 250,000 collective and state farms. Even if ccllectivization had been enthusiasticaJly embraced by Soviet farmers, the process of reorganization would no doubt have been awkward, and aggregate agricultural production may have decreased. There were difficulties obtaining agricultural machinery and managing the transportation of agricultural goods, as well as inexperienced managers of the new large farms, In addition to these problems, the collectivization process was resisted by fanners. For example, farmers slaughtered their horses and cattle rather than surrender them to the collective. This resistance was especially strong in the Ukraine, where peasants had always cultivated their own land and therefore "had a much stronger sense of private ownership and deeper feeling of freedom and independence" compared to Russian peasants (Do lot 1985:xiv). The objectives ofthe central Soviet government during the early 1930s were therefore to maintain ample food supplies for the urban industrial sector while completing the transformation of agriculture to a coJlective system. In the Ukraine, these objectives were pursued by giving farmers a quota of grain that had to be shipped. Farmers who resisted joining the collectives were forced to ship their entire crops: Stepan Schevchenko was a poor farmer ... like the rest of us [but different} from us in only one way: he had categorically refused to join the collective farm. He paid off all his taxes for the year 1932, and apparently thought that the government would leave him alone .... But he was overly optimistic. 12 The Facts About Malnutrition One day he received a requisition order demanding him to deliver 500 kilograms of wheat to the state. He delivered it in full. But no sooner had he done so when he received another order. This time they demanded twice as much wheat, ... [even though] he had none left .... The officials ... threatened him with Siberia, ... [and) he was forced to sell everything he had of value, including his cow, to buy the order of wheat. ... He SOon received the inexorable third order: 2.000 kilograms of wheat immediately! ... The Bread Procurement Commission paid him a visit. ... He and his family were ordered to leave their house .... All that belonged to the Shevchenkos was con- fiscated and [became) "socialist property." (Dolor 1985:146) The seizure of all available stocks of food in the Ukraine caused widespread starvation among the very people who produced the food in the first place. The most extreme famine conditions were suffered in the Ukraine for several reasons: the more active resistance to collectivization in the Ukraine, a nationalistic Or ethnic bias against Ukrainians on the part of the Russo-centric decisionmakers in Moscow, and a desire to hide evidence that the agricultural collectivization experiment was less than perfectly successful. An estimated 6-8 million Ukrainians died during the famine (of a prefamine population of about 34 million) (see Mace 1984:vi). This leads some Box 2.2 Global Climate Change and Famine in the 16005 In 1600, Huaynaputina_a volcano in Peru-erupted. The eruption lasted for two weeks, and spewed enough ash to fill a box 3 miles wide, 3 miles long, and 3 miles deep. The ash and the sulfur dioxide emitted by the volcano caused severe weather thousands of miles away in Europe. Sweden had record snowfalls. Estonia had the coldest winters in 500 years of recordkeeping. But in Russia, the cold weather was just part of the climate disaster. The Summer of 1601 had such heavy rain that crops failed. Boris Godunov, who had become tsar in 1598 following the death of Ivan the Great's invalid son, attempted to deal with famine. He permitted serfs to leave their masters and move to other farms or to cities; he fmanced public works (notably the erection of the Bell Tower dedicated to Ivan the Great), paying workers with grain drawn from government stores. But those efforts fell short. In 1602 crops failed again. And in 1603, they failed again. The crop failures resulted not just from floods but also from drought and from freezing. i During the period 1600--1603, one-third of the Russian population died of famine. A Dutch merchant traveling in Russia during these years wrote; "So great was the famine and poverty in Moscovia that even mothers ate their children." Sources: Mataev 2001; Perkins 2008 '-0- _ _ Famines: The Historical Context _ 13 historiansto compare it to the holocaust of the Nazi concentration camps. James Mace draws these sobering conclusions: "The Great Famine of 193233 is unique in the annals of human history in that it was wrought neither by some natural calamity nor even by the unintentional devastation created by warring armies. It was an act of policy, carried out for political ends in peacetime. It was deliberately man-made" (I 984:i). (See Box 2.2 for a story of famine in Russia in the 1600s.) The Chinese Great Leap Forward Famine, 1959-1961 The most destructive famine in terms of human lives lost occurred in China during Mao's Great Leap Forward. During this period, a large number of social and economic changes were being instigated by the central government. In the agricultural sector, collectivization began in 1952 and was successful in increasing agricultural output through 1958. Beginning in 1958, the government insisted that farmers undertake untested production methods based on unorthodox (and as the Chinese experience was to prove, flawed) science. The government forced a reorganization of smaller group or cooperative farms into larger communes (see Box 2.3). In addition, a commitment to an ideology of regional self-sufficiency led to a program that forced farm workers to divert some of their working hours to industrial production such as small-scale steel plants. China was also seeking to establish its economic independence from the Soviet Union, so food exports were increased during 1959 and 1960 to repay debts. Simultaneous with these changes in government policies, poor weather conditions occurred in the years 1959-1961; conditions were especially poor in 1960 and 1961, with 15-20 percent ofagrieulturalland being hit by natural calamity. Agricultural production, which had risen by 28 percent from 1952 to 1958, fell back below 1952 levels. A paper by Houser, Sands, and Xiao (2009) looks at regional data to see whether higher mortality rates were uniform throughout the country (as we would expect if policy caused the famine), or whether there were geographical differences (as we would expect if weather problems caused the famine). They conclude that policy mistakes are a more important cause than bad weather. More than 30 million people died prematurely as a result of the Great Leap Forward famine. The enormity of the problem emboldened political leaders in the provinces to abandon the policies imposed by Mao's central government. The famine can be said to have had political as well as demographic consequences, as power devolved to the provinces until the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s reasserted the primacy of the central government. Chen and Zhou (2007) find that the famine had long-term consequences reducing the stature, health, labor supply, and earnings of those exposed to the famine in early childhood. Scholarship about the Great Leap Forward famine has accelerated as more and more records from the era become public. Two books (Tombstone by Yang 14 The FactsAbout Malnutrition Box 2.3 Incentives in Chinese Agricultural Communes One of the changes that accompanied the Great Leap Forward campaign was a change in the way group farms were organized. Economist Justin Yifu Lin (1990) examined the details of farm organization and concludes that the changes in the rules of these organizations contributed to the famine of 1959-1961. After the revolution of 1949. many Chinese fanners voluntarily fanned cooperatives of different types. In "mutual aid teams," a handful of neighboring families would share tools and draft animals and would help on each other's plots when needed. Each [ann household continued to own land, tools, and animals; each family made its own decisions about which crops to plant; each family received the output from its land for consumption or sale. In "elementary cooperatives," twenty to thirty households agreed to combine into a single farm. Here, each family continued to own land, tools, and animals, but the decisions were communal, and output was shared. The sharing of output depended on how much ...
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